On January 21, 2021, President Joe Biden continued an American tradition by attending a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral. The phenomenon included a closing prayer from Presiding Bishop Curry. Since 1933, the National Inaugural Prayer Service has been a familiar part of the inaugural ceremonies, but even before the was a National Cathedral, The Episcopal Church prayed for–and with–Presidents. That legend began with George Washington and the first inauguration in 1789.
Washington took the promise of office at Federal Hall in New York City, the nation’s temporary capital, on April 30, 1789. After swearing his expletive, the brand-new President and his wife Martha walked up Broadway to cry at St. Paul’s Chapel , now part of the Parish of Trinity Church Wall Street. The Episcopal Church officially accepted Washington’s ascension to the nation’s highest department, mailing the brand-new President a message on August 7, 1789. This send, offered by a developing church to the firstly chairman of a brand-new nation, wish to consider as we respond with succor the continued existence of our democracy.
It is not solely the lawsuit that The Episcopal Church transport President Washington a letter in 1789. “The Episcopal Church” are not available in 1789 , nor was there at that time a “Protestant Episcopal Church of the United Government of America, ” to use the aged formulation. The General Convention of 1789 announced itself “The Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Commonwealth of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina.” That cumbersome label was necessary because five of the original 13 governments chose not to send representatives to the Convention. Even those who attended the meeting were not sure Episcopalians needed a national organization. Not every diocese had a bishop, a situation William White, one of the founding fathers of our school, called “the unfinished business of the episcopacy.”
Even so, the sown the heads of state of what would eventually become The Episcopal Church were unanimous on one issue: George Washington’s character was the key to the nation’s future. Their address to the brand-new President indicated the “temperate more efficient exercise” of the capability Washington had dominated as a general. Washington chose not to set himself up as military authoritarian right after the fight, an outcome that was often the result of eighteenth-century changes, contributing the Convention to praise “the voluntary and magnanimous relinquishment of those high-pitched powers at the moment of peace.” They were prescient, as the “voluntary and magnanimous” transfer of influence was to be one of the regular supernaturals of American governance, although of late in jeopardy.
Washington was himself an Anglican, and then an Episcopalian, and had served on the vestry of districts in Virginia both before and after the Revolutionary War. The Convention observed this denominational kinship, affirming, “We most thankfully rejoice in the election of a civil ruler deservedly beloved, and eminently discriminated among the friends of genuine religion; who has gaily united a tender regard for other religious with an inviolable feeling to his own.” The utterance “genuine religion, ” a reference to James 1:27, carried substantial theological value at the time. John Calvin had characterized sincere religion in 1602 as confidence in God coupled with a fear that sprang from “willing reverence.” John Wesley preached in 1771 that genuine religion was “easily discerned” in two oaths: faith and saving. The influential Anglican clergyman Josiah Tucker, well viewed in America for his support of our nation’s Independence, claimed in 1777 that sincere belief depended upon “a right employment of day and talents.”
That Washington understood “genuine religion” in the Episcopal tradition is reflected in his reply to on August 19, 1789. The new President thanked the Convention for its good will, testifying, “It would ill become me to conceal the euphorium I have felt in perceiving the fraternal desire which appears to increase every day among the friends of genuine religion.” Yet Washington was at anguishes to strike an ecumenical flavor, adding that he was pleased “to see Christians of different sects stay together in more charity, and attend themselves in respect to each other with a more Christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation.” It is safe to say that Washington, conjured on the Book of Common Prayer’s prayer chairmen act “in all godly quietness, ” would therefore be puzzled by American’s be returned to Christian nationalism.
When the National Cathedral hosted President Biden last week, The Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, called upon the participants to “look toward the future with resolve and hope, ” and to “seek divine guidance always, care for one another, and live according to the highest goals to which God announces us as individuals and a nation.” The prose is contemporary, but the desires are not so different from those of our Episcopal forebears of 232 year ago. They were living in an age of skepticism- not all believed that Americans were capable of nonviolent self-governance. They asked God to help the President replace for the purpose “the restoration of Order, and our ancient goodness; the propagation of sincere belief, the consequent improvement of our respectability abroad, and of our substantial joy at home.” We are reminded that a great deal depends upon the character of the President.
Dan Ennis is a member of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Conway, SC.
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