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Cover art by Arnold Friberg.
George Washington faced a grim moment January 1, 1777. All enlistments for the Continental Army had expired on that date and all of the army, or at least what was left of it, was free to go home. This would not just cripple the Revolution, but probably end it.
He gathered his troops together, the drum roll began, and the general asked all those willing to extend their tours to step forward. Not one soul moved. Then, as Tim Ballard tells it in his new book The Washington Hypothesis, “A depressed Washington turned his horse and began riding away. Then suddenly he stopped, returned to his men, and said:
“’My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will continue to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.’
“If ever there was a Captain Moroni/Title of Liberty moment during the American war for independence, this was it,” writes Ballard. In fact, the entire revolution was “a play inundated by miracles, unnatural courage, unprecedented faithfulness, angels, and a cause so important that countless millions would eventually be blessed for it.”
America is a covenant nation, and its founding reflects those covenant promises repeated so often in the Book of Mormon. These are binding promises from God, which He remembered for generations. A covenant nation has covenant protection—which began even at its founding.
What’s interesting is that George Washington was so fully aware that God was at the helm of this battle and that their success was completely dependent on the miracles of Providence.
Ballard says these miracles came to George Washington and the American cause—and came often—though secular scholars will dismiss it or find other explanations. It is critical that we, who have the benefit of gospel understanding, not forget the exceptional intervention of God in America’s founding.
Even from the beginning of the war, Washington said, “God in his great goodness will direct [the outcome]” and, after his surprising victory at Princeton, he noted, “Providence has heretofore saved us in remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely.”
This was not mere talk or lip service.
Washington’s understanding was that God’s blessings were inextricably linked to the obedience and righteousness of his army, so he was forthright in placing high standards upon them. A covenant blessing was activated by righteous living and only this led to miracles.
Ballard says, “One of his very first instructions he gave to his soldiers at the Boston scene was to ban all ‘profane cursing, swearing and drunkenness’ and to encourage ‘a punctual attendance on divine Service, to implore the blessings of heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.’”
Help Needed in New York
The rag-tag and green Continental Army would need heaven’s help. In April 1776, they arrived in New York, a city with a large population of Loyalists and surrounded by water that was conducive to a British naval attack.
By June the British fleet arrived in the harbor with some four hundred ships. It was at this time, the largest force ever sent forth by one nation to another. One of Washington’s men wrote, “I declare that I thought all London was afloat.”
The Americans numbered well under half of the British troops, but they did have a promise of the Lord on which they could rely. George Washington wrote to John Adams saying, “We have nothing, my Dear Sir, to depend upon, but the protection of a kind Providence.”
Washington sent his troops to Long Island to engage the Red Coats where they had landed and the Americans were devastatingly defeated, losing between 700 and a thousand men. The British lost fewer than one hundred.
It was at a time of great devastation when Washington again called on his army to implore the God of heaven. On Friday, May 17th, Washington sent general orders to his army:
“Instant to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, humbly to supplicate the mercy of Almighty God, that it would plese him to pardon all our manifold sins and transgressions, and to prosper the Arms of the United Colonies, and finally establish the peace and freedom of America, upon a solid and lasting foundation.”
Ballard writes, “It was as if the American leadership were following Book of Mormon principles. Washington followed up the call shortly thereafter with another, which declared that ‘the fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.’”
Ballard says, “From a higher view, it seems the hosts of heaven would have been praying, cheering, supporting, and helping the American cause. Can we not suppose that the angels of God looked down upon Washington in his predicament at Long Island? Certainly those billions of deceased souls understood what hung in the balance, because it affected them on a very personal level. They had been waiting for priesthood and temples for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Millions upon millions were waiting for their work to be done, waiting for salvation. No government in the world had afforded the liberty necessary for the restoration of priesthood and temples to the earth. This was their chance. But the chance seemed to be fading quickly. Should Washington and his army be captured or destroyed, hope for freedom—the kind required for the Restoration—would disappear.
“As Benjamin Franklin declared, ‘Tyranny is so generally established in the rest of the world that the prospect of an asylum in America for those who love liberty gives general joy. It is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.’”
It must have been a highly unusual sight to see an army fasting, praying regularly and repenting of their sins—but that was Washington’s vision and that’s what they did.
As the British continued to close in on Washington’s army at Long Island—the land troops threatening from the east and the British navy pushing up the river, it became clear that the only way Washington could save his army was for them to cross the river by night, landing safely back in Manhattan.
This would seem impossible with the British swarming on both land and water, but on the third day after his decision, Washington turned to General Israel Putnam and declared, “God is propitious tonight.” Indeed He was. A miracle happened.
A ferocious wind from the north pushed the British back from advancing up the river and intercepting the fleeing Americans. Still, the night ended and the dawn was coming with a substantial number of American troops needing to make it off of Long Island and across that river.
David McCullough writes, “Troops in substantial number had still to be evacuated and at the rate things were going, it appeared day would dawn before everyone was safely removed. But again the ‘elements’ interceded, this time in the form of pea-soup fog. It was called ‘a peculiar providential occurrence,’ ‘manifestly providential,’ ‘very favorable to the design,’ ‘an unsual fog,’ ‘a friendly fog,’ ‘an American fog.’ ‘So very dense was the atmosphere,’ remembers Benjamin Tallmadge, ‘that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.’ And as daylight came, the fog held, covering the entire operation no less than had the night…while over on the New York side of the river there was no fog at all.”
McCullough sums it up, “But what a close call it had been. How readily it could have gone all wrong—had there been no northeast wind to hold the British fleet in check through the day the Battle of Long Island was fought, not to say the days immediately afterward, Or had the wind not turned southwest the night of August 29. Of had there been no fortuitous fog as a final safeguard when day broke…Incredibly, yet again—fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often—intervened.”
Washington’s Own Sense of Destiny
Miracles like this marked the Revolutionary War. Divinely orchestrated weather events. Fortunate fogs. The Lord’s storms. Yet, just as impressive was the man Washington himself, whom the Lord “raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).
Though the fog saved the Revolutionary Army in New York, they had lost this battle. Washington was devastated and humiliated. Washington wrote, “If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings…In confidence I tell you that I never was in such an unhappy, divided state since I was born.”
But things got worse. Washington received word that the colonial governments, hearing about the New York “debacle” lost interest in pursuing the war and were refusing to send back up troops. From the beginning this had not been a tremendously popular movement. At various times during the American Revolution over 50% and perhaps as high as 65% of the people believed the American sacrifice was not worth it.
McCullough reminds us that “the Americans of 1776 enjoyed a higher standard of living that any people in the world…How people with so much, living on their own land, would ever choose to rebel against the ruler God had put over them and thereby bring down such devastation on themselves was incomprehensible.”
After the New York loss, when support for the war was at an all-time low, the British took advantage of the moment. “They offered a ‘free and general pardon’ to all American rebels, including a guarantee of the ‘preservation of their property, the restoration of their commerce, and the security of their most valuable rights.”
George Washington didn’t listen. Ballard says, “He rejected the peace terms and the pardon and continued his sad and lonely retreat southward, his small army intact and willing to fight.”
Ballard asks, “Why? Why would Washington pursue this course of action?”
He answers, “No secular-based historian can explain why Washington did what he did any more than they can explain why Moses put everything on the line and did what he did, challenging the Pharaoh; or why Joseph Smith sacrificed all in doing what he did, challenging the religious establishment of the world. In each of these cases, God’s chosen ones were acting on inspiration, having been ‘raised up unto this very purpose.” And though admittedly Washington was not a prophet in the mold of Moses or Joseph, he was the closest thing to a prophet in that time. For his inspired actions, though not fully understood by the world in which he lived, laid the ground work for the Restoration. “
The Lord has always asked us to remember. In The Washington Hypothesis, Tim Ballard tries to teach us through history that God’s covenant blessings were on the founding of this nation—and this we must remember.
John Adams said, “What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”
“This,” says Ballard,” is the spiritual change we need today.
If Washington could lead American out of the darkest of days through invoking the covenant, then we can be led out of anything under similar leadership. Think about how dark those days were. The world’s military superpower had landed on American beaches, after which over half of all American troops abandoned the cause. Picture that happening to our America today. How frightening! And yet, they overcame. They knew how. If we apply the same covenant theology today, which it is out right to do, then no obstacle, no matter how dark, scary, or difficult, can get in our way. The purposes of the Almighty can then move forward in ways we have not yet seen.”
That’s a hopeful note.