© 2011 Brett H Runion. All rights reserved. Colonial Americans Understanding of Providence

Colonial Americans Understanding of Providence

Americans during and before Washington’s era understood the theological term “Providence” very well. “Providence” is not an American theological invention but comes to us starting with the early church (the church fathers like Clement, Origen) then the Reformation or “Reformed Theology”. “Providence” as a theological term was well establish as church doctrine in the Westminster Catechism (1648, 1674?). The Westminster Shorter Catechism (link to more modern version) has two references to “Providence”:

Question 8:      “How doth God execute his decrees?”

Answer 8:        “God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.”

Question 11:    “What are God’s works of providence?”

Answer 11:      “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions”

Like Washington parents, most parents in America could read and write and taught their children at home.  One of the most popular educational books of the time was, The Church Catechism explained by way of question and answer; confirmed by scriptural proofs, By John Lewis:

Question “What do you mean in praying for the coming of his Kingdom?”

Answer “Spray that God would rule in our Hearts, and enlarge the Christian Church, by destroying the Power of Sin and Satan; stad’triat (so that?) he would hasten the Kirgdoav (Kingdom) of Glory’.’

Question “What is the third Petition?”

Answer “Thy Will he dine it.’ Earth, as it is in Heave.”

Question “What do-you mean by the Will of God?”

Answer “Whatsoever he hath promised or commanded in his’ Word, or does inflict in the Course of his Providence.”

Question “What then do you pray for in thit Petition?”

Answer “I pray that God will accomplish, in his good Time, whatever he has promised ; and make me, and all the World, to submit to,’ and serve him with our utmost Care and Diligence, ts the Angels and Saints do in Heaven.”

Page (75-76 The Church Catechism explained by way of question and answer; confirmed by scriptural proofs, By John Lewis)

“A Morning Prayer, to be used daily by every Child ‘ at Hume”

“Let thy good Providence defend me this Day from all evil; let the Grace of thy Holy Spirit continually prevent and assist me.”

Page (101-105 The Church Catechism explained by way of question and answer; confirmed by scriptural proofs, By John Lewis)

The first Great Awakening and its famous preachers, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, and Whitfield all used “Providence” throughout their sermons. It was common practice to have these sermons copied and read widely in the colonies  The Washington family was no exception. Washington had in his own library many sermons of the day.

The word “Providence” is used not just used in church, but by many of the colonies charters and constitutions contain the references to “Providence”. The Declaration of Independence ends in these words:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Even the Great Seal of the United States was designed to picture the, “all-seeing eye of Providence”. Various committees of the US congress beginning in 1776 conceived the idea, and then finished in 1782 by the Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson, a Christian Theologian.  The Great Seal of United States pictured the “eye of Providence” within an equilateral triangle to represent the Trinity. The “eye” represents the first person of the Trinity, God the Father the Sovereign Agent of Providence. According to the records of the Contentment Congress “. . . the eye . . .allude(s) to the many signal interpositions of providence in the favor of the American cause” (Sacred Fireby Peter A. Lillback Page: 1183)

Americans believed in and found their faith in the God of “Providence”.  “Providence” was not just a theological term for preachers, but a conviction in the hearts and minds of fathers and mothers that God was active in their lives; furthermore, He was sovereign over the actions of men and the creation of a nation. The first Great Awakening gave wings to the idea that people no longer served the king of any foreign country, but only “King Jesus”. Only the Spirit of the Living God empowered them to govern their sinful nature; therefore, allowing self governance.  The God of the Bible provided the connection between virtue, and self governance. George Washington was taught this from a young age and lived it throughout his life than when his service to his country was done, he reminded us in his farewell address that “Providence” and virtue are not mutually exclusive but the former gives birth and life to the latter:

“Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

What about today? The eternal God of “Providence” does not change . . . we have forgotten or have chosen to ignore or deny the God of Providence.  I have never heard a modern preacher (with the exception of a home school convention), teacher, politician or friend, use this term. When I began the painting, I had known idea this is where I would end up. Yet now I understand the point, God in his “Divine Providence” has graciously guided me to reminding me that it is He that works and wills all things for His good purpose. Now I am now a converted preacher of the Doctrine of “Divine Providence” for  I look at history, current events and the miracles in the my own life that can sum it all up in a single word, “Providence!”

“I am sure that never was a people, who had more reason,  to acknowledge ‘A Divine Interposition in Their Affairs’, than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten ‘That Agency’, which was so often manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to ‘Consider The Omnipotence!’ of That God Who is Alone Able to Protect Them.” (bold emphasis mine)

SOURCE: George Washington – Letter to John Armstrong, March 11, 1792

One will notice that George is not looking at young “Wash” or Nelly but at you, posterity. I believe he would ask us today and is asking, Have you forgotten Providence?

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


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