A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Far greater than Alexander the great, was Washington . . . and will remain forever a bright example, to all men.”

Summary Overview

Henry Holcombe served as an officer in the American army during the Revolutionary War, and became a Baptist preacher after the conflict ended. His admiration for what George Washington had done—as a general and as president—is reflected in this sermon, which was Holcombe’s most famous. In it, Holcombe emphasizes his understanding of the Christian doctrine of salvation and discusses Washington as an exceptional example of someone who followed this doctrine fully throughout his life. Although Holcombe speaks at length on the need for personal salvation, he also emphasizes Washington’s personal views, including his belief that religion was an integral part of a fully functioning democracy. By taking this occasion to highlight Washington’s leadership and stature, Holcombe reminds his audience of the ideals upon which the United States was founded.

Defining Moment

George Washington is arguably the man most closely identified with the success of the American Revolution. He was also the one who seemed to have brought a new sense of unity to the emerging nation as its first president under the Constitution. Washington died on December 14, 1799. As the people of the new country dealt with this loss, many turned to their church for guidance. During the period from Washington’s death until the national day of mourning on February 22, 1800, countless sermons were preached using his life and death as a focal point for the message. Henry Holcombe, as the pastor of a Presbyterian and Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia, was one of the individuals who tried to put Washington’s death in context. The members of his parish responded very positively to his sermon, and copies were printed and widely distributed. Because of its reception, Holcombe’s sermon was preached in other churches. However, it was more than just a good printing press and multiple preaching venues which ensured the survival of this sermon. It has, in fact, been seen as one of the most outstanding sermons dealing with Washington’s death.

This sermon can be seen as part of the trend that depicted the United States, and its leaders, as having a special relationship with God. Beginning with the Puritans in seventeenth-century New England, the idea developed and spread that the colonies were the new Israel, making the colonists God’s special people. As a part of this worldview, some American leaders were seen in the same light as the Old Testament Jewish leaders or prophets. Preachers used analogies in which various leaders were compared to specific individuals from the Old Testament. Holcombe thought Washington was superior to the figure of Abner. This idealization of the American cause was important as the United States struggled to find its place in the world. Religious leaders used occasions of national mourning, such as Washington’s death, to emphasize the role that Americans could and would (in their view) play in the world. Thus, sermons “occasioned by the death of Washington” lifted up the American democratic process as being part of God’s plan for the new nation founded by near-perfect men to be a light to the world.

Author Biography

Henry Holcombe was the son of Grimes and Elizabeth Buzbee Holcombe; he was born on September 22, 1762, in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Shortly after his birth his parents moved to South Carolina where Henry grew up. His formal education ended at age eleven, although he continued to explore various aspects of life on his own. Trouble with Great Britain dominated American political life as Henry was reaching maturity. As the war came to the South, Henry joined the colonial army, eventually earning promotions to the rank of captain through his leadership on the battlefield. Not from a deeply religious family, Holcombe recollected that he found salvation during his service in the army. From the time of his baptism, at the age of twenty-one, Holcombe felt called to preach and was ordained and began his full-time work of pastoral ministry in 1785. One of his first converts to Christianity was his wife, Frances. In 1790, Holcombe attended the Constitutional Convention in South Carolina as a delegate and voted to accept the proposed Constitution for the United States. This was the height of his involvement in politics, except as social concerns of his faith intersected with the political realm.

His initial work in the pastoral ministry was in a rural region of South Carolina. In 1799, he was invited to Savannah, Georgia, to help establish a Baptist church in that community. While he was organizing the church, Holcombe preached to a mainly Presbyterian congregation in a building constructed by Baptists. In 1802, the church was formally organized, and he remained there through 1811.

In addition to his work in the local church, Holcombe founded the first Baptist magazine in North America, The Analytical Repository. Holcombe was very interested in social causes. When he first moved to Georgia, he was shocked by the severity of the criminal justice system there. He advocated for more mercy in the justice system, and this was adopted by the state. He was also said to have been against slavery, but did not support an instantaneous radical change which would have collapsed the Southern economy. During his time in Georgia, Holcombe’s views on war were totally transformed, and he became a pacifist. At that point he accepted the call from the Baptist Church in Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious Baptist pulpits of that time. He remained there until his death in 1824.

Document Analysis

Although in 1800 it had been nearly twenty-five years since the United States declared independence from Great Britain, it had only been a little over a decade since the former colonies had been truly united under the Constitution. As commander in chief of the army during the Revolutionary War, president of the Constitutional Convention, and the first president of the United States, Washington was perhaps the most recognized and revered American of his time. The actions he had taken to disband the army after the revolution, as well as his decision to voluntarily step down from the presidency, made him even more respected. His death on December 14, 1799, shocked the nation. Responding to this, Henry Holcombe took the opportunity to preach a message of salvation. Holcombe’s vision was that the United States, as demonstrated in the life of Washington, was the new vehicle of God’s blessing for all people.

Although this chapter only presents an abridged version of the sermon—just under half of the original text is reproduced here—the entire piece is still relatively short for a sermon given in 1800. Opening with a verse from 2 Samuel, Holcombe quotes a statement by David regarding the death of Abner and then discusses the context for the verse. Although Abner was murdered by Joab, while Washington had died of natural causes, Holcombe nevertheless states that the verse applies “with the most forcible propriety” to Washington. Just as Abner had been a great leader and a great man, Washington had been as well. In a question to his audience Holcombe asks, “Know ye not that in him a great man, a much greater than Abner, is fallen?”

Holcombe’s assertion that Washington was a greater man than Abner was in line with the common American theological belief that the United States was greater than ancient Israel. For preachers of Holcombe’s era, the relationship between the Israelites and God depicted in the Old Testament indicate Israel’s inferiority. However, the most important reason for America’s purported superiority, for the preachers, was the fact that its dominant faith was Christianity, not Judaism. Thus, for most American Christian preachers of this era, the American nation was greater than ancient Israel and, therefore, it was logical that the American leaders would be greater than the leaders of Israel.

Within the first paragraph, Holcombe states that it is “unnecessary” to give the specifics as to why Washington was greater. Most of those listening in the church would have known that although each man had led a military effort to install a new government, Washington became the civilian leader within the government, while Abner fought so David might be the leader of the Israelites. Holcombe emphasizes the importance of this fact in his use of the verse from 2 Samuel, noting that both men had been recognized as great.

As Holcombe completes the introductory passage of his sermon, he begins to speak about his inadequacy in undertaking the sermon. With false modesty, Holcombe says that he is going forward on “the awful ground on which our greatest orators sink unnerved.” Claiming to understand the difficulties of the situation, Holcombe says that he is going to balance the dual purpose of preaching a Christian sermon with an effort to “briefly touch on” the positive characteristics of someone who, while great, was only human.

In the second section of the text, Holcombe discusses men who were often seen as the greatest Greek and Roman speakers, Demosthenes and Cicero; Holcombe also describes great military leaders from antiquity (Caesar, Alexander, Pompey) and from recent years (Marlborough), comparing them to Washington. However, Holcombe reminds his listeners once again that Washington “was but a man.” Continuing in this direction, Holcombe says that just as Abner fell (died), so did Washington, and so too must all humankind. To Holcombe, this was a fact that need not be proved, because it was obvious; his focus was on what happened after death. He believed in a literal, physical, and bodily resurrection. He states that many “heathens and deists” believe that the soul survives, but the physical body decays, and totally disappears. According to Holcombe, other “heathens and deists” did not believe in the immortality of the soul or an afterlife..

Holcombe then continues his sermon with the assertion that “few, if any, of these gloomy monsters disgrace, or infest the United States.” Some of these “gloomy monsters” were the result of the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had challenged the role of the church and religion. Even though many American political leaders drew heavily from the philosophers of this movement, most American religious leaders responded by advocating a fairly literal reading of the scriptures and felt that this was one reason that America was better than “miserable Europe.”

Moving to the third full paragraph of the sermon, Holcombe attempts to discuss what was meant by “fallen.” Holcombe refers to his belief that there is a physical resurrection after death; he asserts that if resurrection were not true, then there would be no reason “to boast of human excellence.” However, even though Holcombe believes in resurrection, he still points to the fact that everyone must “fall.” For Holcombe, the “eternal consequences” of death were the reason for “the most serious reflections.”

After using a quote regarding the universality of mortality, Holcombe continues to stress that notion that everyone dies. He asserts that mortality was more often ignored among those who were considered great—the rich or powerful—than was the case for the average person. However, Holcombe reiterates, even the great must die. He does acknowledge that when a “great man” dies, it “merits respectful and public attention.”

The final description of Washington is the passage regarding his “morals and religion.” To Holcombe, this was what truly made Washington great. Addressing morals first, Holcombe states that Washington’s lack of pride was the key to his place in history. Remembering lows and highs in Washington’s career, Holcombe asserts that Washington always “displayed an equanimity”; his ultimate focus went beyond “any thing that ceases with this life.” Thus, Holcombe states, Washington had only one fear: “the fear of the Lord of Hosts.” Because of Washington’s orientation toward God, Holcombe believes, this “preserved his tongue from every species of profanity.” In addition it gave him purity, because it kept “his heart from pollution.”

Comparing Washington to Alexander the Great, Holcombe argues that the difference between the two was “temperance.” Alexander was militarily successful, but died young because of his “intemperance.” Washington, on the other hand, was seen by Holcombe as one who “ruled his appetites and passions.” According to Holcombe, Washington “will remain forever a bright example, to all men.” Within this temperance “was genuine and exalted” piety, although “unaustentatious.” Even though in this sermon Holcombe uses Washington as an example of the ideal Christian, the interesting point in the closing passage was that Washington did not fit the stereotype of an evangelical Christian. The “modest reserve” to which Holcombe refers, was correct in that Washington did not normally have much to say about religion. At times Washington often attended church services, although it was not uncommon for him to attend different denominations on different Sundays.

As last Holcombe attempts to idealize Washington, he has to make ordinary attributes seem like extraordinary ones. For example, Washington was like most others in not talking extensively about his faith, so Holcombe made this into the virtue of modesty. In many ways, Washington was modest. For example, the instructions Washington gave for his funeral included his desire for a very simple, private affair. Washington’s lack of extensive communication regarding his personal faith has been interpreted by some scholars to indicate that Washington was a deist. However, it is also likely that he just did not have much to say to others about his religious beliefs.

The major paragraph continues Holcombe’s emphasis on Washington’s faith. Holcombe introduces Washington’s views on religion and society by mentioning responses Washington made to messages which he received when elected president. Most of this paragraph cites Washington’s Farewell Address given September 17, 1796; the views in this lengthy passage were reflected in other written statements by Washington.

The essence of Washington’s views is captured in this quote: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality, are indispensible supports.” Thus, as Washington and Holcombe agreed, religion was politically important. Washington goes on to state that these attributes—religion and morality—were “great pillars of human happiness.” To Holcombe and Washington, neither of these qualities could exist without the other. The two men believed even with the best education, public morality could not continue without a religious foundation, since, in a democracy, “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” To both of them, it did not matter how democracy was structured, there needed to be a religious foundation in order to give the leaders the moral fiber necessary to serve the community, rather than to take power for themselves.

Washington was a strong believer in public education, and so in this quote he also affirms the importance of “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” Education through the institutions, according to Washington, was necessary to have an informed public (and public opinion). However, he thought that the public opinion should also “be enlightened,” which meant that the public’s opinion should not be based on just what one could obtain for oneself. An enlightened public opinion has virtue, or morality, as the guiding force, a guiding force based upon religion. In this context, for both Washington and Holcombe, religion would mean Christianity.

In the sermon Holcombe states that Washington’s sentiments were respected throughout Europe and when they were incorporated into any state “hostilities will cease.” Holcombe says that Washington discovered the “essential advantages of religion, in a political light.” He once again reminds his listeners of Washington’s military victories and his role in winning the war. Returning to his earlier theme, Holcombe reminds people that, even as great as Washington was, he still fell. In Holcombe’s view, everyone should “imitate his virtuous and pious examples.”

Holcombe urges the people, and the nation, to mourn their loss. Holcombe was a skillful preacher, and his oratorical style is evident in the text of his speech. In particular, he uses repetition to emphasize Washington’s greatness in terms of his accomplishments, as well as the greatness of his faith. For Holcombe, the former would not have been possible without the latter. Holcombe also stresses the fact that death came to all people, noting that there were occasionally times when death seemed to have been avoided. When this was the case, it was for a special purpose, according to the theology of that era. And upon Washington’s death, Holcombe went beyond his usual evangelical message of personal salvation to include the social dimension of faith as exemplified by Washington.

Essential Themes

As a Christian sermon in an evangelical setting, it was natural for Holcombe to focus on the need for personal salvation. The strong emphasis that even the greatest individual dies was the stimulus he put forward for seeking salvation. Holcombe continues this line of thought by asserting that life only has meaning if there is a life to come. The implied judgment by God, upon one’s death, was the second reason for seeking salvation. Holcombe asserts that the United States was chosen by God to be special because God had given the country leaders like Washington. Going beyond these aspects of early American Baptist theology, Holcombe’s rhetoric has been used to support several intertwined ideas regarding the United States in later centuries. Those who believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation look to Holcombe, who revere the Founding Fathers, and/or who believe that the United States has a special destiny within the world community see their ideas supported by Holcombe’s words.

However, for those who came after Holcombe’s era, there have been debates regarding the accuracy of his assumptions. Holcombe and others saw the defeat of the mighty British army as coming from God. When a similar revolutionary effort was undertaken in France—and resulted in chaos and warfare throughout Europe—Holcombe and his contemporaries were further convinced that God was leading America in a special way. Although the intellectual insights of the Founding Fathers had been widely accepted, some scholars in later eras questioned the source of this insight, positing that it was based on the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment, not, as Holcombe assumed, on religious belief. Finally, although the push in the mid-twentieth century to demonstrate that Washington was an antireligion deist has not been sustained by many scholars, few current historians would place Washington among the devout, as Holcombe did. Washington’s resistance to the temptations of power has been viewed as either based on religion or on his desire for the new nation to succeed. Although historians may continue to debate the accuracy of Holcombe’s assumptions, it is clear that he has contributed to the ongoing discussion of American’s role in the world.

Bibliography
  • History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia: With Biographical Compendium and Portrait Gallery of Baptist Ministers and Other Georgia Baptists. Atlanta: Harrison, 1881. Boston Library Consortium Member Libraries. Boston Library Consortium, Inc., 2012. Web. 19 May 2012.
  • Sandoz, Ellis, ed. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1789–1805. Vol. 2. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Boles, John B. “Henry Holcombe, A Southern Baptist Reformer in the Age of Jefferson.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 54.3 (1970): 381–407. Print.
  • Chernow, Rob. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
  • Duvall, Jim, ed. Baptist History Homepage. John Leland Baptist College, Oct. 2002. Web. 19 May 2012.
  • Holmes, David L. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.
  • Rhees, B. Rush. Eulogium on the Life and Character of the Rev. Henry Holcombe, D.D.: Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Stavely, 1824. Princeton Theological Seminary Library. Princeton Theological Seminary, 2008. Web. 19 May 2012.

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