The Invisible Hand in George Washington’s Leadership

July 02, 2014

by Peter Lillback

Our era is marked by political correctness and efforts to downplay Western civilization. Yet Americans still recognize George Washington as a great leader.

Washington’s sweeping contributions include: ƒ ƒ

  • Securing American independence as General in the Revolutionary War ƒ ƒ
  • Presiding over the framing of the U.S. Constitution ƒ ƒ
  • Protecting and advancing religious liberty for all, inclusive of minority faiths ƒ ƒ
  • Establishing the precedents of the American presidency ƒ ƒ
  • Modeling the orderly and peaceful transition of power

Any of these would have sufficed to be remembered by history. Washington’s constellation of accomplishments caused his contemporaries to call him “the Father of his Country.” In prior generations, he was the national colossus towering as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Seemingly, today’s leaders could still learn a thing or two from “His Excellency.”

Contemporary analysts, however, focus on debunking traditional stories about Washington or emphasizing his flaws and imperfections. Such efforts to cut Washington down to size nevertheless underscore his abiding influence.

But a key element of Washington’s leadership often remains unacknowledged or unrecognized: how the Bible shaped him as he shaped America. Washington’s biblical knowledge ranged from Genesis to Revelation, with well over 200 biblical allusions or citations in his writings including numerous references to Christianity, God, heaven, prayer, and the Ten Commandments, to name a few. Consider a letter he wrote in April 1789.

Its classic style bristles with biblical and theological concepts:

The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.

Washington’s leadership often reflected scriptural emphases. Consider three examples of biblical ideas that impacted Washington’s leadership: providence, perseverance, and humility.


In his first inaugural address 225 years ago, Washington declared, “… the republican model of government [is] justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” This experiment was possible due to “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect.”

Newly inaugurated President Washington believed providence was the “invisible hand” behind America’s success:

No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. 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.

What did Washington mean by “providential agency”? His view of providence came from the Bible. As President, he wrote to the Hebrew congregation of Savannah, Georgia, paralleling Israel’s exodus with American independence:

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land — whose Providential Agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent Nation — still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Providence was Washington’s favorite theological truth. Providence prompted him to exercise faith and thanksgiving. In a private letter on August 20, 1778, he called himself a “preacher of providence”:

The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations, but it will be time enough for me to turn preacher, when my present appointment ceases; and therefore, I shall add no more to the Doctrine of Providence … .

Providence and Perseverance

For Washington, God’s providence gave strength enabling perseverance in the adversities of life. He wrote on October 27, 1777, “I flatter myself that a superintending Providence is ordering everything for the best, and that, in due time, all will end well.” One can hear an echo of Romans 8:28 in these words.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:18, “Keep alert with all perseverance.” Washington also prized perseverance. On October 17, 1779, he wrote, “The troops … manifested a patience, perseverance, and valor that do them the highest honor.”

To his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, he wrote on December 19, 1796, “… ’tis to close application and constant perseverance, men of letters and science are indebted for their knowledge and usefulness.”

On August 28, 1793, he wrote to the inhabitants of Richmond:

Every good citizen will then meet events with that firmness and perseverance which naturally accompany the consciousness of a good cause.

Providence and perseverance enabled Washington to have an ideal balance for a great leader. Jim Collins of Good to Great fame writes,

“Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call the Stockdale Paradox: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Washington the leader trusted in providence and persevered in adversity.

Providence and Humility

The invisible hand of providence not only supports leaders’ perseverance in adversity, but it enables them to have humility in success. With victory secured, Washington wrote on June 11, 1783:

Glorious indeed has been our Contest; glorious, if we consider the Prize for which we have contended, and glorious in its Issue; but in the midst of our Joys, I hope we shall not forget that, to divine Providence is to be ascribed the Glory and the Praise.

Washington prayed on June 8, 1783, for the newly independent governors. He identified an ingredient of national success to be humility like that of “the Divine Author of our blessed religion”:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God … would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

Providence and History

The invisible hand of providence that Washington preached sustained his perseverance in adversity and humbled him in victory. It made him great by keeping him from doing two things, thereby changing history. He didn’t quit when all seemed lost. He didn’t become king when all was won. Providential perseverance kept him going at Valley Forge. Providential humility established America’s principle of the orderly transition of power.

A “happy nation” is yet possible with reliance on the invisible hand Who worked inWashington’s biblically informed leadership. For the “invisible hand” and the “Divine Author” working together can still create leaders who succeed in the endeavors of life.


This article was original published in Cedarville Magazine by Cedarville University.

Peter Lillback

Dr. Lillback (PhD, Westminster) is president and professor of historical theology.

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