George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. You may have noticed postings on Facebook and elsewhere with recommended readings in commemoration of the occasion. Peter Lillback’s recent work, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, should be among that list. But it was on this day, February 23, in 1862, that the Rev. T.W.J. Wylie, a Reformed Presbyterian pastor (General Synod) brought the following message:—
Washington a Christian.
A Discourse preached February 23, 1862, in the First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.
by the Pastor, T. W. J. Wylie.
(Philadelphia: William S. & Alfred Martien, 606 Chestnut Street, 1862.)
“According to Thy manifold mercies Thou gavest them saviours, who saved them out of the hand of their enemies.” — Nehemiah ix. 27.
Why was yesterday, throughout our land, such a day of gladness? It was because, in the arrangements of Divine Providence, a succession of victories which had crowned our arms, was connected, by a delightful coincidence with the recurrence of the birthday of the patriot, the hero, the statesman, who, by universal consent, bears the honoured name of Father of His Country. It was well for us, with gratitude to Heaven, to observe the day; and while reflecting on the evidences which the past presented, that the Lord our God was with us, to gather hope and courage for the future.
It is proper for any nation to cherish the memory of those who have been its deliverers or benefactors. In one of the sacred Psalms (lxxxvii. 4) we have been singing, the inspired writer refers to Rahab, or Egypt, and Babylon, as distinguished for their great men. Ethiopia, also, then, as now, perhaps, despised by many, is not forgotten—”this man was born there.” But it is when the honours which may be accorded to any one, for the natural greatness which he may attain, are connected with the higher glory of a Christian life, that we find an object worthy of our chief admiration. “It shall be said of Zion, This and that man was born in her; and he that is the Highest himself shall establish her. The Lord shall count when he writeth up the people, that this man was born there. Selah. As well the singers, as the players on instruments, shall be there. All my springs are in thee.”
It is in this aspect then, especially, that we think it proper, to-day, to review the character of that illustrious man, whom our nation delights to honour. We do, indeed, think it would be unsuitable to introduce into this holy place what was purely political; and we consider it highly improper that any should substitute the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address for the usual exposition of divine truth; but we do think it is perfectly appropriate that we consider the illustration which the history of our country, and the life of Washington afford, of the language of our text: God, “according to His manifold mercies, has given us saviours, who have saved us out of the hand of our enemies.” Such men were Washington, and others, and it is proper for us to acknowledge, with gratitude, the manifold mercies of that gracious Being who raised them to save us from the hand of our enemies.
In thus referring to the history of Washington, we invite your attention, first, to his early life. We desire, naturally, to trace a mighty river to itds fountain; and as we notice how it gushes from the mountain-side, in some dark glen, almost entirely concealed from view; and as we trace its widening, deepening course, till it swells into the majestic stream, which floats a navy on its bosom, we admire the more the grandeur of a development so great, from a beginning so small. We ask what influences have produced such a result. So in the career of great men—so in the history of Washington. One of our first inquiries is, What was he when a child? How was formed then that noble character, which has gained him a place so exalted in the annals of our race?
We may notice, first of all, that he enjoyed the blessing of pious parents. His father, who died when his son was only about ten years old, was a religious man, and appears to have had a profound sense of the Divine existence and excellence, which he endeavoured to impress on the tender heart of his child. His mother, too, was a consistent Christian, and carefully brought up her children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” It is related of her daughter, that when parting with a son, as he first left his home, she gave him, as her farewell charge, “My son, never neglect the duty of secret prayer.” Washington, we doubt not, was early taught to pray; and from a child, he knew of the Holy Scriptures. Indeed, there is reason to believe that from a very early age he was a subject of regenerating and sanctifying grace. His case is one of many which prove the faithfulness of the divine promise: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
One of the principal features of his character was filial obedience. He was remarkable for the respect which he always showed his widowed mother. When quite a young man, a commission was obtained for him to enter the British Navy as a midshipman. His mother had given a reluctant assent, and all the necessary arrangements had been made. The vessel was lying in the Potomac to receive him on board; his baggage was ready; he was just going to say farewell, when he observed that his mother’s heart was grieved, and he resolved to remain. The firm spirit which never quailed before a foe, was bowed by a mother’s love. His whole career was changed. Had it not been that he was thus influenced, how different would have been his subsequent history, and ours!
Such was his general, we doubt not but we may say, his uniform character. When some one, after the great victory which terminated our Revolutionary War, hastened to announce the tidings to his mother, her reply was simply, “George was always a good child.” We question if any of the honours which were heaped upon him were more grateful than this praise from the lips of her whom he so much loved and revered.
He displayed in youth an intrepidity which foretokened the courage he afterwards manifested. The traveller who visits the Natural Bridge in Virginia may notice how one person and another, desirous of leaving a record of his existence, has climbed up its almost perpendicular sides and carves his name on the soft rock. High up above the rest is the name of Washington—the steady heart, the firm hand, the strong foothold of the boy, corresponding to the character of the man.
His habits of system and industry were remarkable from early life. In the language of an old writer, he “endeavoured to live by rule, and therefore had a rule to live by.” When he was about thirteen years of age he prepared a blank book to make a record of such things as he considered worthy of especial remembrance. Among other articles entered in this book we find a number of rules of conduct for the young. Some of these indicate the leading elements of his future character. “When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously in reverence.” “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” “Be no flatterer.” “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.” “Let your conversation be without malice or envy.” “Detract not from others, neither be excessive in commending.” “Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.” “Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.” “When you meet with one of greater quality than yourself, stop and retire, especially if it be at a door or any straight place, to give way for him to pass.” “In your apparel be modest, and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than to procure admiration.” “Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you, to see if you be well-decked; if your shoes fit well, if your stockings sit neatly, and clothes handsomely.” One of the books which belonged to his mother, and which was found in his own library, having evidences of frequent use, was the writings of Sir Matthew Hale; and there is reason to believe that the valuable counsels which it contains were enjoined by his mother, and adopted by himself, for the regulation of his life.
His love of truth is shown by incidents in his history which are as familiar to all Americans as household words. His sense of justice, his impartiality and decision of character were conspicuous even when he was a child. His companions had such confidence in him that they were in the habit of calling on him to settle their disputes. Although naturally courageous, he would neither fight with his schoolmates himself, nor allow them to fight with each other, and braving their displeasure, he would inform the teacher in order to prevent such combats.
But we pass to consider his charcter as he entered upon public life—as the soldier and the statesman—in both the Christian.
It is well known that he early entered into military service, and in the wars with the French and Indians, before our Revolution occurred, he was prepared for his high position as the commander-in-chief of our armies during the severe and long-continued struggle for our National Independence. The condition of our country at this period shows that he was “raised up for such a time.” Our numbers were few, our resources feeble indeed, and yet we had to cope with the well-trained armies of a mighty empire. At the head of our troops he was the right man in the right place. With courage to strike the blow, and with firmness to wait till all was ready, he was the very person who was fit for such a post. One who was rash or impetuous would have hazarded our cause in the unequal struggle, and lost it. But he could brave insinuation and reproach, and with a lofty patriotism prefer that his own character should suffer rather than his country should be injured. Remarkably preserved from dangers at various times, he was evidently destined to the high work which he so gloriously accomplished.
It is our design, however, principally to refer to the evidences of genuine religion which were manifested in his military career. In one of his proclamations he says, “The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor so to live and act, as becomes a Christian soldier defending the rights and liberties of his country.” “A CHRISTIAN SOLDIER”—what he desired in others he certainly exhibited himself. He frequently refers in his letters and reports to a Divine providence, even in events where many Christians would fail to notice the hand of heaven. “We should have been,” he says, when on his first expedition, then but twenty-three years old, “we should have been four days without provisions if Providence had not sent a trader from the Ohio to our relief.” “By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence,” he says, when giving an account of Braddock’s defeat, “I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, while death was levelling my companions on every side of me.” “I trust that Divine Providence,” he says again, “which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge our duty with fidelity and success.” In his reply to a congratulatory address on the evacuation of Boston, he declares that the happy result “must be ascribed to the interposition of that Providence which has manifestly appeared in our behalf through the whole of this important struggle, as well as to the measures pursued for bringing about the happy event.” And he adds, “May that Being who is powerful to save, and in whose hands is the fate of nations, look down with an eye of tender pity and compassion on these United Colonies. May He continue to smile upon their councils and arms, and crown them with success whilst employed in the cause of virtue and mankind.” On receiving information of the surrender of Burgoyne he writes to his brother in reference to “this signal stroke of Providence.” In another letter, alluding to the sufferings of our army at Valley Forge, he says, “To paint the distress and perilous situation of this army in the course of last winter, for the want of clothes, provisions, and almost every other necessary essential to the well-being, I may say, existence, of an army, would require more time, and an abler pen than mine. Nor since our prospects have so miraculously brightened, shall I attempt it, or even bear it in remembrance, further than as a memento of what is due to the Great Author of all the care and goodness that have been extended in relieving us.” In another private letter, he says, “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
Referring to the condition of public affairs in 1778, when he had gone to Philadelphia to consult with Congress on the plan of the campaign for the next year, he says, “If I was called on to draw a picture of the times and of men, from what I have seen, heard, and in part know, I should, in one word, say, that idleness, dissipation and extravagance seem to have laid fast hold of most of them; that speculation, peculation, and an insatiable thirst for riches, seem to have gotten the better of every other consideration, and almost every body of men; that party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day; while the momentous concerns of an empire, a great and accumulating debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit, which in its consequences is the want of everything, are but secondary considerations, and postponed from day to day, from week to week, as if our affairs wore the most promising aspect. I again repeat to you, that this is not an exaggerated account. That it is an alarming one, I do not deny. And I confess to you that I feel more real distress on account of the present appearance of things, than I have done at any one time since the commencement of the dispute. But it is time to bid you adieu. Providence has heretofore taken us up when all other means and hopes seemed to be departing from us. In this I will confide.” In a “Circular of the States,” dated Philadelphia, January 31, 1782, he says, “Although we cannot by the best concerted plans absolutely command success, although the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, yet without presumptuously waiting for miracles to be wrought in our favour, it is an indispensable duty, with the deepest gratitude to Heaven for the past, and humble confidence in its smiles on our future operations, to make use of all the means in our power for our defence and security.”
To continue reading this discourse, click here, and continue from page 20.