WASHINGTON, George, President. Letter signed ("G:o Washington") AS PRESIDENT-ELECT to Justus Henry Helmuth and "the Ministers, Church-Wardens and Vestrymen of the German Lutheran Congregation in and near Philadelphia," [New York], [27 April 1789]. 1½ pages, folio, recipient's docket "George Washington" on blank. Discreetly silked, small chip at top corner of first leaf, otherwise in excellent condition.
THREE DAYS BEFORE THE FIRST INAUGURATION, WASHINGTON LOOKS FORWARD TO "THE BLESSINGS OF A WISE AND EFFICIENT GOVERNMENT" UNDER THE NEW CONSTITUTION
THE PRESIDENT-ELECT AFFIRMS THAT HE WILL ENCOURAGE "THE DOMESTIC AND PUBLIC VIRTUES OF INDUSTRY, ECONOMY, PATRIOTISM, PHILANTHROPY, AND "THAT RIGHTEOUSNESS WHICH EXALTETH A NATION"
"SO LONG AS MY CONDUCT SHALL MERIT THE APPROBATION OF THE WISE AND THE GOOD." An exceptional letter, constituting Washington's sole public message to the members of a Lutheran congregation. The letter to which Washington responds is signed by Helmuth and J.F. Schmidt, both Ministers. On behalf of their congregation, they salute the President-elect, expressing "the joy we entertain for your appointment to the station of President in Chief." They profess "entire esteem" and "exalted consideration" for Washington's character and allude to "the duty we owe to this our country." In America's recent struggle for its independence, Helmuth writes, "your Excellency bore so illustrious a part from the very beginning of a most arduous contest." Even during the darkest trials of that war, "the blessings of divine providence" helped sustain them. Now, with a new government being formed with Washington at its helm, "pleasingly do we anticipate the blessings of a wise and efficient government--equal freedom, perfect safety--a sweet contentment spreading through the whole land...pure religion, and that righteousness which exalteth a Nation." Helmuth explains that he speaks for the wider congregation of "our German Brethren.." He reiterates their high regard for Washington and "confidence in your abilities, patriotism and distinguished goodness." In conclusion, he promises that the Lutherans will continue to pray to "the Throne of Grace" on Washington's behalf. (Full transcript available.) Washington, though burdened with an extensive correspondence as the inauguration ceremony approaches, responds:
"While I request you to accept my thanks for your kind address, I must profess myself highly gratified by the sentiments of esteem and consideration contained in it. The approbation of my past conduct has received from so worthy a body of citizens as that whose joy for my appointment you announce, is a proof of the intelligence with which my future transactions will be judged by them."
"I could not however avoid apprehending that the partiality of my Countrymen in favor of the measures now pursued has led them to expect too much from the present Government, did not the same Providence which has been visible in every stage of our progress to this interesting crisis, from a combination of circumstances, give us cause to hope for the accomplishment of all our reasonable desires."
"Thus, partaking with you in the pleasing anticipation of the blessings of a wise and efficient government; I flatter myself that opportunities will not be wanting for me to show my disposition to encourage the domestic and public virtues of Industry, Oeconomy, Patriotism, Philanthropy, and that Righteousness which exalteth a Nation."
"I rejoice in having so suitable an occasion to testify [to] the reciprocity of my esteem for the numerous People whom you represent. From the excellent character for diligence, sobriety and virtue, which the Germans in general, who are settled in America, have ever maintained; I cannot forbear felicitating myself on receiving from so respectable a member of them such strong assurances of their affection, for my person, confidence in my integrity, and zeal to support me in my endeavours for promoting the welfare of our common Country."
"So long as my Conduct shall merit the approbation of the Wise and the Good, I hope to hold the same place in your affections, which your friendly declaration induce me to believe I possess at present: and, amidst all the vicissitudes that may await me in this mutable existence, I shall earnestly desire the continuation of an interest in your intercessions at the Throne of Grace."
Preparing for the Inaugural Address
For some weeks, while the day of his inauguration neared, Washington had struggled over the address he planned to deliver. A first draft--methodically addressing many of the specific problems facing the nation--had been summarily scrapped after Washington showed it to James Madison. A new inaugural address, delivered from Federal Hall to an enormous crowd on 30 April 1789 was less specific but more inspired, and in some passages is strikingly similar in tone, vocabulary and content to Washington's eloquent valedictory to the Philadelphia Lutherans. In the inaugural Washington alluded--in carefully non-sectarian terms--to his own faith, and the role of faith in the lives of his fellow citizens. He also invoked "the great Author of every public and private good," extolled His gifts to the new nation, offered "fervent supplications to that Almighty Being, who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations," and expressed the wish that "His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves...."
The nation's good fortune, he asserted, shows "the invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men," and he pointed out that "every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency." Those gifts included the "important revolution" in the formation of "this united government." Finally--paralleling the letter to the Philadelphia Lutherans, Washington alluded to "the present crisis"--the near collapse of government under the Articles of Confederation, and affirmed his optimism in the auspicious "proceedings of a new and free government" under the Constitution.
Controversy over Washington's faith
Over the years, considerable speculation has been focused on Washington's private religious beliefs. Some family members and early biographers, including Parson Weems (father of the cherry tree legend) and Jared Sparks, collected anecdotal evidence--some of questionable veracity-- testifying to Washington's conventional Christian piety and frequent resort to prayer. The controversy continues unabated. Although born into the Anglican faith, Washington was never confirmed and did not take communion when he occasionally attended services. He showed little interest in theology, and was extremely guarded in his public and private references to God, as "the Almighty," "Providence" or "the Supreme Being." Was the first president, as many have claimed, a simple Deist--believer in an abstract, all-pervasive but impersonal deity, as in the case of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Franklin and other Founding Fathers? Or did his private religious convictions, however carefully guarded, suggest a deeply personal belief in a traditional Judeo-Christian God, capable of active intervention in the affairs of man, a God who looked with especial favor upon the recent critical efforts of the new nation in its hard-fought efforts to establish independence, and, later, to provide a framework for its effective governance?
In these continuing debates, primary source evidence is of enormous value. And, in this context, Washington's authentic public statements, one historian points out, "contain the majority of his statements about religion." In his view, "Washington's speeches, orders, official letters and other public communications on religion give a uniform picture. They seem to display the outlook of a Deist...." (D.L. Holmes, The Religion of the Founding Fathers, 2003, p. 84). Two other recent interpreters argue a diametrically opposite position, though they concur with Holmes that Washington's "public declarations, orders and messages" are still "of most weight to the public life of the United States." Indeed, "they set an official precedent for all commanders...and all presidents to follow," and "constitute part of the official record of the basic religious expressions, rituals and collective religious actions" of the new nation (M. Novak and J. Novak, Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of our Country, 2006, p. xiii).
The present eloquent letter to the German Lutheran's of Philadelphia is Washington's only known letter to a Lutheran congregation. The ongoing publication of Washington's public proclamations and correspondence has uncovered a number of revealing letters and statements--including this one--which will certainly continue to clarify the nature and expression of Washington's private faith. Published (from a retained copy) in Papers, Presidential Series, ed. Abbott, 2:179-181.
The Philadelphia Lutheran Congregation
The letter to Washington may have been drafted by the senior minister to the Philadelphia Lutheran congregation, Justus Henry Christian Helmuth (1745-1825). Helmuth was pastor of St. Michael's and Zion Parish (the largest Lutheran Parish in the United States) from 1779 to 1820. Born in Brunswick, Germany, he attended an orphan school in Halle and studied theology, Latin and Hebrew. Ordained at Wernigerode, he was sent to America, arriving in April 1769 at Philadelphia. He was minister to the German Evangelical Congregation of Lancaster until 1779, then senior minister of the Philadelphia congregation. A trustee of the University of the State of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pennsylvania), he was professor of German and Oriental languages there.
Helmuth's career testifies to the burgeoning growth of the Lutheran church in Pennsylvania. "The pre-Revolutionary era had witnessed the immigration of thousands of German Lutherans to colonial America...," writes one historian, and Helmuth was one of several Halle-trained ministers who, after the revolution "began to assume the mantle of Lutheran leadership" and played a key role "in adapting this dominant Lutheran tradition to the new conditions of life in a Constitutional democracy" (Paul P. Kuenning, The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism, pp.46-47.
Provenance: Justus Henry Christian Helmuth (1745-1825)-- by descent to the present owner