“The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.” – General Orders, (July 9, 1776) George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.
As we celebrate our country’s 235th birthday I was thinking about these words delivered at the start of the Revolutionary War. How important are Christian soldiers to our freedom and our success as a nation?
Despite the story, which inspired the painting Prayer at Valley Forge, that we thought confirmed his faith, the question of whether or not George Washington was actually a Christian is uncertain. That story, which is now generally believed to be myth, goes that Washington was discovered praying at Valley Forge by Quaker and pacifist Isaac Potts who believed that “no man could be a soldier and a Christian at the same time. But seeing George Washington on this day convinced me of my mistake.”
The truth is that Washington was vague about his faith, perhaps intentionally evasive. Thomas Jefferson, who was keenly interested in the question, observed that Washington never said a word to the public about his personal religion. In fact, Jefferson noted in his diary that ‘the old fox was too cunning’ to be pinned down on the topic. (If you are interested in more on this, I recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, by John Fea) . There may be room for debate on Washington’s personal faith, but his conviction that Christian character was essential for soldiers and for the good of the nation is evident, and he was not alone.
In 1941, Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt met aboard the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to issue the Atlantic Charter, an agreement that would lay a foundation for the Allied alliance in World War II. A church service was held onboard and one of the hymns chosen by Prime Minister Churchill was Onward Christian Soldiers. Reflecting on that song, Churchill said, “I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
Churchill was talking about ‘fighting men’ whose Christian faith was the only hope, the sure hope, to save the world. Washington was talking about the importance of Christian character in defending the rights and liberties of the country. Jesus himself encountered the earliest recorded Christian soldier when he met the Roman Centurion in Capernaum. Jesus said of the Centurion, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).
Okay, so the Christian soldier is established through history. But what does it mean to act and live like a Christian soldier in 1776? What are the laws and ideals that were the sure hope of the world in 1941? What was it about the Centurion’s faith that impressed Jesus in the first century? What does it mean today, and are these things still important? These questions were asked and answered in the sixteenth century in The Manual of a Christian Knight* published in 1503 by a contemporary of Martin Luther by the name of Desiderius Erasmus. In this work Erasmus defines 22 rules for the Christian soldier, which are worth taking a closer look at.
As you celebrate the Fourth of July this year please consider the importance of the Christian Knight, the Righteous Protector in securing and maintaining our freedom. I hope you will join me in the next few articles exploring, understanding and then applying Erasmus’ 22 rules. I think you will find them as relevant today as when they were written.
* Also translated from the latin, Enchiridion Militis Christiani, as The Handbook for the Christian Soldier, or The Guide for the Righteous Protector.