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224 pages
Oct 2004
Charisma House

The Faith of the Presidents: Our National Leaders at Prayer

by Ron DiCianni

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The United States of America has become morally and spiritually adrift from its foundational principles. Proof of this statement lies within America’s everyday life. Newspapers, magazines, and even children’s cartoons point to a country that has become a sea of immorality. The only good news is that America still has a nucleus of people who pray to God and have faith in Him.

What makes America different as a nation is our Judeo-Christian heritage. Granted, many might argue with that last statement. The new trend in countercultural thinking is that everything is relative and to base a governmental system on religion is lunacy because there are no absolutes. Regardless of the resolution to that argument, our nation’s history has volumes to say on the subject of faith and government. Before looking at the spiritual life of individual leaders, it is imperative to examine the choice and statements made by our early government. The choices that early leaders made resoundingly points to their priorities and outline what they held most dear. In the case of our founding fathers, God and their personal spiritual beliefs were significantly important not only in their own lives, but also in governing the nation.

One of the documents that forged our nation, the Declaration of Independence, points to God as one of the central themes and refers to God in four separate sections. He is referred to as the “Creator of man,” the “God of Nature,” “Divine Providence,” and the “Supreme Judge of the world.” It would seem, then, that those men who founded this country placed a high value on their faith. In this political document, God and His laws are argued as the justification for the colonies’ decision to declare independence. Not only did our founding fathers see a direct correlation between religion and state, but they also saw the two as inseparable.

Under the assumption that someone could argue away the meaningfulness of these references to God as simple consensus building or else a concession to an ultrareligious faction among the founding fathers, let’s examine the actions of our Congress. One of the early acts of both the House and the Senate was to independently approve the appointment of a chaplain for each body. In addition, each chaplain was to draw a salary from the still struggling federal budget. As if this wasn’t proof enough, Congress declared that each session was to be opened and closed with prayer. And that has continued right through the turn of the millennium. Congress has had thousands of members throughout the decades, but each session has been blessed by prayer. The newly formed Congress directed two other very significant actions to honor the Christian heritage they were building the nation upon. In 1789, they unanimously approved a measure directing President George Washington to “declare a day of Thanksgiving and prayer” for the specific purpose of allowing the public to reflect on “the many signal favors of God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a constitution of government.” Last, as an everlasting reminder, the design of our currency, mandated and approved by Congress, includes the phrase “In God We Trust” prominently displayed on every bill and coin minted. Certainly the burgeoning Congress, the “people’s” representatives in government, considered God to be an integral part of public, private, and governmental policy.

The course of our nation’s history has helped this book to write itself. From General George Washington’s famous “prayer at Valley Forge” to President George W. Bush’s prayer at a podium during America’s terrorist crises, it becomes clear that prayer has been the mighty refuge of our presidents.

Chronicling the faith of presidents through their words has put back into perspective our nation’s dependency upon God Almighty.

Whether in days of peace and prosperity, or in the desperate days of war and national crisis, history records that we are a Christian nation. We may change the future, but we cannot change the past.

Regardless of what you may personally believe or what you have been taught, here it is for the record. The faith of our presidents knit together to form an address called “prayer.”

The prayers differ, of course. The Listener is always the same.

As you read the words of each president, imagine yourself being there at that moment in time. Stop to reflect on what struggles must have burdened the hearts of these men who, at times, carried the “weight of the world on their shoulders.” Ponder their great need for direction beyond human wisdom, with such matters at stake that would make the strongest of men shudder.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French statesman and theorist who came to America in the 1830s, in part answered the question, “What makes America great?” His conclusions spanned hundreds of pages and were published in two separate volumes. Time and again Alexis de Tocqueville referred back to America’s religious heritage as a primary reason for her success. He, in fact, remarked that the first thing that struck him was the “religious aspect” of the new country and that the longer he stayed, the more he saw how faith and government were intertwined. Although he came to many theories on the relation between faith and the American government, these two quotes provide a glimpse into his conclusion:

[T]here is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.

Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.

Alexis de Tocqueville was possibly one of the best minds of his generation. Still today, his work in various social fields remains required reading. How fitting it is that the independent confirmation of America’s spiritual heritage comes from such a source.

Early America and Christianity were inseparable. This nation’s founders and architects clearly left a spiritual heritage for later generations to follow. Our presidents have wisely and universally embraced, and continued, that heritage. Although every man is fallible and not all of our leaders were “perfect” role models, the fact remains that the results of their faith and prayers should be an encouragement to us in good times and bad.

In the final analysis, faith and prayer are still alive and well. The more we seek God’s wisdom, the more God will grant the adage in troubled times, “God Bless America.”



Born: February 22, 1732, in
Westmoreland County, Virginia


President: 1789-1797

 A young man, barely twenty, sits down before a writing table. The candlelight is only a flicker in this Sunday predawn gray. With a flourish of his quill, he pens these words into his prayer journal:

    I beseech thee, my sins, remove them from thy presence, as far as the east is from the west, and accept of me for the merits of thy Son, Jesus Christ, that when I come into thy temple, and compass thine altar, my prayers may come before thee as incense; and as thou wouldst hear me calling upon thee in my prayers, so give me grace to hear thee calling on me in thy word, that it may be wisdom, righteousness, reconciliation and peace to the saving of the soul in the day of the Lord Jesus. Grant that I may hear it with reverence, receive it with meekness, mingle it with faith, and that it may accomplish in me, Gracious God, the good work for which thou has sent it.

His Life

A general and the first president of a new republic, the United States of America, George Washington has been a source of fascination since 1778. It is important to realize that Washington was not predisposed by status toward challenging British rule. As the son of a propertied family, Washington was positioned for a comfortable life of local power and prestige. In fact, one of his first adventures as a teenager was to help map and survey the area of Shenandoah for Lord Fairfax.

The life that Washington could expect was one typical of eighteenth-century Virginia. He would be an area gentleman, manage his land, and engage in commerce. Many men in Washington’s social class would become involved in local governance or the military, and he was no exception. As an officer, Washington won acclaim in the Seven Years’ War and would bring that experience to bear as he led his rag-tag collection of troops on to defeat the mightiest army of the time during the Revolutionary War. Lest one think he avoided the front lines, George Washington’s coat was pierced by four bullets, and his horse was shot twice during one encounter in 1755. But Washington emerged uninjured.


Bless, O Lord, all the people of this land,
from the highest to the lowest,
particularly those whom thou has appointed
to rule over us in church and state.


Much of today’s national attitudes and policies were enacted by or under Washington. Indeed, he set the tenor for the American system of governance. His greatest fear, however, was that the ideals upon which the new nation was founded would give way to the demands of ideology and petty squabbling. To that end, Washington was careful to respect the powers and rights given to Congress and to the individual states under the Constitution. Struggling with the growing pains of a new nation and foreign tensions with the French and English, Washington was exploring vastly uncharted territory. His compensation for that struggle was $25,000 per year. It was, however, a concerned leader who stepped down after a second term. President Washington commented that his greatest worry for the American people was that the government would fracture along ideological and political lines to the detriment of the nation. The American government envisioned by George Washington was much different in spirit than the political climate of today.

His Legacy

Beyond his public acclaim, Washington was a man of intense faith. As an elder in his church for almost twenty years, Washington always made God a priority. Many of those around him remarked on the sincerity of the first president’s faith in their own journals. Washington was recorded by Henry Cabot Lodge to be a Christian of “simple and childlike faith” with “no doubts or questionings but believ[ing] always in an overruling providence and in a merciful God.” Washington carried these cherished beliefs to the highest office of the land where he proclaimed that it was his desire for the government’s actions to be fixed on “true principles.” George Washington was a president of many “firsts” for America. He was the first five-star general (awarded posthumously), the first president, the first commander in chief, and one of the Founding Fathers of this nation. The words of his farewell address ring as true today as when he proclaimed, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can exist apart from religious principle.”

Years later, a seasoned statesman and leader of the newly formed America recalls his Christian heritage as he proclaims the first Thanksgiving:

    Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

    —OCTOBER 3, 1789

This statement was part of George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation establishing November 26, 1789 as a day of national thanksgiving and prayer as requested by a unanimous vote of Congress. Although a day of thanksgiving had been celebrated before and after his presidency, Washington’s proclamation represents the first one by the newly formed government.

His Faith

Picture a man wearing a white wig standing on a balcony before a multitude of spectators. A cool April wind blows through the square in New York. America’s first president asks for a Bible and humbly utters the first words of a new presidency. Little does the crowd below know that these words—“so help me God”—are Washington’s own addition to the oath of office. Once again this famous leader has set a precedent for those who follow.

From his first day as president, Washington was unashamed to publicly express his faith and need for God. As the leader of a new nation stepping into uncharted territory, Washington had to be endowed with great faith in God. Developing “childlike faith” like that of George Washington’s results from constant prayer and the realization that we can do nothing apart from the Father.

Perhaps you realize that it is time to shift the focus of your faith from people or things, and turn it toward the only One who can help you when you face monumental decisions.


Faith in Action

Lord, grant me this day the wisdom to heed Your Word. I know that I am a sinner, but by Your grace You saved me. I pray that You watch over my family and me and that Your hand guides us each day. Help me to obey those in authority over me, and let me live my life in service to You showing Your salvation to those around me regardless of their race or social position. Amen.