George Washington’s association with the German Reformed Church in America began with the early enlistment of Pennsylvania Germans, including Peter Humrickhouse, who volunteered to serve in the Continental Army on May 6, 1776.
An article in the Chicago Tribune newspaper on October 23, 1875 states, “…that General Washington’s Body Guard during the war for independence consisted exclusively of Germans,” (either German immigrants or families who had come to America from Germany). The reason for this, according to the newspaper article, was because the Germans had a “trusty and faithful character.”
His close association with the Pennsylvania Germans, more broadly speaking however, was the result of Tory treachery. The switch to exclusively German Life Guards was occasioned by a plot to assassinate Washington and his officers, a plot which, according to historian David McCullough’s book 1776 involved two members of the previous guards provided by the various colonies.
Baron von Steuben personally trained the new German-speaking Life Guards, who were encamped behind Washington’s headquarters in Germantown. They served not only as guards, but as light infantry, and saw action numerous times during the war, led by Lewis Boyer, a German Lutheran ( who would later join the Evangelical Church).
Washington took notice of Humrickhouse, in particular, and upon crossing the Deleware, appointed him officer-of-the day after Saratoga. Humrickhouse, a stalwart member of the Germantown Reformed Church, would later re-enlist and, at the personal behest, organize and lead a 10-wagon caravan of ammunition to Yorktown, without which the war might have been lost.
Washington’s warm affection for his trusted comrades-n-arms continued after the war, not only through his correspondence with the German Reformed pastors (20% of whom had enlisted as chaplains in the Continental Army), but especially to the church in New York, where his friend Baron von Steuben served as elder. Writing to the German Reformed Synod, Washington said;
The illustrious and happy event on which you are pleased to congratulate and welcome me to this City, demands all our gratitude; while the favorable sentiments you have thought proper to express of my conduct, entitles you to my warmest acknowledgements.
Disposed, at every suitable opportunity to acknowledge publicly our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for rescuing our Country from the brink of destruction; I cannot fail at this time to ascribe all the honor of our late successes to the same glorious Being. And if my humble exertions have been made in any degree subservient to the execution of the divine purposes, a contemplation of the benediction of Heaven on our righteous Cause, the approbation of my virtuous Countrymen, and the testimony of my own Conscience, will be a sufficient reward and augment my felicity beyond anything which the world can bestow.
The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me to the Field; the object is attained, and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer, that the Citizens of the United Sates would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings, placed before them; and that the reformed german Congregation in New York; may not only be conspicuous for their religious character, but as exemplary, in support of our inestimable acquisitions, as their reverend Minister has been in the attainment of them.
During his presidency, when smallpox required the nation’s government to move from Philadelphia to Germantown, Washington was a frequent visitor to the German Reformed Church there where, he no doubt renewed his warm acquaintances with the men with whom he had served. While Washington himself was a lifelong Anglican, even serving for a time as vestryman, he eventually stopped taking communion. He did not state his reasons, although he often spoke about the social value of churches in maintaining the moral order. This has led some historians to conclude his sympathies had grown toward Deism, although all efforts to to “claim” Washington can never be more than speculation. It is enough to recognize his invaluable contribution in winning independence, ratifying the Constitution, and establishing the role and limits of the Presidency. For that, every American owes him a debt of gratitude.