In 1789, at its first General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America wrote a letter to the new President of the United States of America, George Washington, congratulating him on his inauguration and expressing their prayers to God for him as he began his labors. Their view of his Christian faith and piety, as well as their obligations to the state, is significant.
Tuesday, May 26, 1789
First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
To the President of the United States,
Sir – the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, embrace the earliest opportunity in their power, to testify the lively and unfeigned pleasure which they, with the rest of their fellow-citizens, feel, on your appointment to the first office in the nation.
We adore Almighty God, the author of every perfect gift, who hath endued you with such a rare and happy assemblage of talents, as hath rendered you equally necessary to your country in war and in peace. Your military achievements insured safety and glory to America, in the late arduous conflict for freedom; while your disinterested conduct, and uniformly just discernment of the public interest, gained you the entire confidence of the people: And in the present interesting period of public affairs, the influence of your personal character moderates the divisions of political parties, and promises a permanent establishment of the civil government.
From a retirement more glorious than thrones and scepters, you have been called to your present elevated station, by the advice of a great and a free people; and with an unanimity of suffrage that has few, if any, examples in history. A man more ambitious of fame, or less devoted to his country, would have refused an office in which his honours could not be augmented, and where they might possibly be subject to a reverse. We are happy that God has inclined your heart to give yourself once more to the public. And we derive a favourable presage of the event, from the zeal of all classes of the people, and their confidence in your virtues; as well as from the knowledge and dignity with which the federal councils are filled. But we derive a presage, even more flattering, from the piety of your character. Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity; and religion is the surest basis of virtue. We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief magistrate, a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the Christian religion; who has commenced his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of piety; and who, in his private conduct, adorns the doctrines of the gospel of Christ; and on the most public and solemn occasions, devoutly acknowledges the government of Divine Providence.
The example of distinguished characters will ever possess a powerful and extensive influence on the public mind; and when we see in such a conspicuous station, the amiable example of piety to God, of benevolence to men, and of a pure and virtuous patriotism, we naturally hope that it will diffuse its influence; and that, eventually, the most happy consequences will result from it. To the force of imitation we will endeavour to add the wholesome instructions of religion. We shall consider ourselves as doing an acceptable service to God, in our profession, when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government. In these pious labours, we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren of other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic; shall receive encouragement from every wise and good citizen; and, above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.
We pray Almighty God to have you always in his holy keeping. May he prolong your valuable life, an ornament and a blessing to your country, and at last bestow on you the glorious reward of a faithful servant.
Signed by order of the General Assembly,
John Rodgers, Moderator.
Philadelphia, May 26th, 1789
The following year, President Washington wrote the Assembly back. His humility, as well as his understanding of what promotes the happiness of a country, are noteworthy.
To the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Gentlemen, I received with great sensibility the testimonial given by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, of the lively and unfeigned pleasure experienced by them on my appointment to the first office in the nation.
Although it will be my endeavour to avoid being elated by the too favourable opinion which your kindness for me may have induced you to express of the importance of my former conduct, and the effect of my future services; yet, conscious of the disinterestedness of my motives, it is not necessary for me to conceal the satisfaction I have felt upon finding that my compliance with the call of my country, and my dependence on the assistance of heaven to support me in my arduous undertaking, have, so far as I can learn, met the universal approbation of my countrymen. While I reiterate the professions of my dependence upon heaven as the source of all public and private blessings, I will observe, that the general prevalence of piety, philanthropy, honesty, industry, and economy, seems in the ordinary course of human affairs, particularly necessary for advancing and confirming the happiness of our country. While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will all be emulous of evincing the sincerity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the benevolence of their actions. For no man who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.
I desire you to accept my acknowledgements for your laudable endeavours to render men sober, honest, and good citizens, and the obedient subjects of a lawful government; as well as your prayers to Almighty God for his blessings on our common country, and the humble instrument which he has been pleased to make use of in the administration of its government.
We may not ever again be able to correspond with a ruler in this manner, but let us continue to pray for our president and his officials, according to God’s word in I Timothy 2:1ff.. Let us continue to strive to work to see the people of God be the best citizens they can be (per Jeremiah 29). And let us pray that Biblical piety will once again mark our leaders, as it did in some during the early days of our country. We don’t need the latter to occur for the first two to be our duty.
(Taken from the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1789-1790)