© 2011 Brett H Runion. All rights reserved. What is Providence

What is Providence?

In order to answer this question we are going to examine:  First, what did “Providence” mean to George Washington?  Secondly, what did it mean to his listeners?  Thirdly, what does “Providence” say to us today? I do not pretend to be an expert on George Washington, the Revolutionary War or church history in America. My hypotheses as to the origins of Washington’s preferred term to describe the God of the Bible is my attempt at finding an accurate picture. Thus, as an amateure detective I have attempted to connect the dots.

“Providence” is George Washington’s preferred term to describe the God of the Bible as God’s Sovereign will in the history of mankind. George Washington’s definition of providence is clearly discernible in his many letters. The over 270 reference to “Providence” and “Providential” is well summarized in Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback as (Page 580);

“Providence is God’s invisible superintending or overruling of human events.”

Washington understanding of “Providence” was formed early in his life. Alexander and Mary Washington taught their children at home. George Washington’s person library has been well preserved; though from these books we can see some were used by his father and mother that speak directly to the theological idea of “Providence”. Specifically we know that Sir Matthew Hales book Contemplations of Moral & Divine was used by Mary Washington in the home education of their children. Author James K. Paulding describes as he is looking at the very book Mary Washington has signed in her own handwriting, “It bears the appearance of frequent use, and particular chapters are designated by marks of reference.” (Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback Page 131). Thanks to Google one can easily find this text. Searching the text one finds 83 references to “Providence”. One of those frequently used pages by Mary Washington as noted by Paulding (page 253 Contemplations of Moral & Divine by Sir Mathew Hale)

“When I undertook any place of power or eminence, first I look to my call thereunto to be such as I might discern to be thy call, not my own ambition. Second, that the place was such as might be answered by the suitable abilities in some measure to perform. Third, that my end in it might not be the satisfaction of pride, ambition or vanity in myself but to serve Providence and my generation honestly and faithfully.”

These words to me, more then any other describe George Washington. There are other books in Washington’s library that address the theological concept of “Providence”, such as “The Travels of Cyrus”, and the fiction text “The Travels of Pergrine Pickle” (Sacred Fire by Peter A. Lillback Page 119).

Washington so believed in the “Doctrine of Providence” he considered becoming a “preacher”. George Washington wrote to Brigadier General Thomas Nelson, August 20th 1778:

“It is not a little pleasing, nor less wonderful to contemplate, that after two years of Maneuvering and undergoing the strangest of vicissitudes that perhaps ever attended any one contest since the creation of both Armies are brought back to the very point they set out from and, that that, which was the offending party in the beginning is now reduced to use the spade and pick axe for defense. The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more then wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations, but, it will be time enough for me to turn preacher, when my present appointment ceases; and therefore, I shall add no more to the Doctrine of Providence”

In conclusion the combination of George Washington’s character qualities, formed by Biblical truth, imparted to him by his mother’s home education, the historical context of current events and the miraculous events in his own life only severed to confirm his view of the world. That view was the God of the Bible working His Sovereign will in his own life, and through the events of the revolutionary war which empowered godly men and women to self govern. Instead of having to say this in one long sentence every time he wished to convey his thinking, he could say it all in one word “Providence”. “Providence” was the lens which George Washington understood the world.

Read more about the work of Providence in George Washington’s life (select the next post below):


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