Portrait of a Father: Teaching Character As Washington Was Taught10 min read

by Jillian Diffenderfer
Portrait of a Father: Teaching Character As Washington Was Taught<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">10</span> min read</span>
Reading Time: 7 minutes


The American family has certainly changed since the founding of our Nation. In colonial families, the father served as the head of the family, providing for his family and raising his children to be disciplined and productive. He set the standard of behavior, both in religion and socially. The colonial father would train his sons to hunt and fish, as well as provide training for his children in the family business or in the learning of a trade.

The colonial father’s key role was the shaping and guiding of the child(ren) in the ways of God. He would lead the family in daily prayer and guide them in their spiritual formation.

In some ways, colonial fathers played a more active role at home than they do today. This is, perhaps, because work and home were not as differentiated as they are in our modern culture. Despite the changes in the role of the father over the centuries, the Biblical mandate to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) still holds true.

George Washington As a Model of Fatherly Character

Perhaps a model of fatherly character can be found in America’s first President, George Washington. Though George lost his father when he was a boy of 12, virtue was modeled and taught in his home daily from early childhood to adulthood. We know much of the character and influence of George Washington, which can be attributed to George’s religious training and education. In fact, in her book, The Women of the American Revolution, Elizabeth Ellet writes of Washington that, “the future chief was taught the duty of obedience and was thus prepared to command.”

Washington biographer, James K. Paulding, writes to having seen a well-used volume of Matthew Hale’s Contemplations, Moral and Divine at Washington’s Mount Vernon home. Of this volume, Paulding writes, “It bears the appearance of frequent use, and particular chapters are designated by marks of reference.” This was the book that the Washington family would gather to read, learning lessons of “piety, morality, and wisdom.” A chapter titled The Great Audit, “appears to have been selected,” Paulding writes, “and seems to contain as much true wisdom as was ever embodied in the same compass.” Paulding goes on to say that he “extracted those parts which most singularly assimilate with the character of Washington, in order that…youthful readers may see whence it was that, in all probability, the Father of his Country derived his principles of action and, if possible, imitate his virtues.” We’ve summarized some of the principles found in Paulding’s extraction of Matthew Hale’s The Great Audit for you.

Matthew Hale’s The Great Audit

The Great Audit begins with a discourse on Matthew 25, charging readers to remember their divine command to use the talents the Lord has given them. Everyone has been given a unique set of talents and God has entrusted his children to use these talents to the best of their ability. Hale describes a talent as “a stock of advantages and opportunities,” and reminds readers that the strength and ability to use our talents also comes from the Lord.

Hale breaks down these talents into “items” and from these items the following principles are derived.

1. The Senses: God has given the senses to use for His glory. With our eyes, we shall not “rove after vanity or forbidden objects” but shall use them to behold God’s works and gain wisdom. With our ears we shall not participate in sinful conversation, slander, lying, or flattery, but rather we shall exercise them to increase our faith, knowledge, and piety. We use our ears to hear the cry of the oppressed and answer it. We use all our senses for the “exercise of an honest calling and conversation.”

2. Reason and Understanding: We watch over our senses so that we may earnestly search out Truth and build our faith. We endeavor to make our understanding useful and have used our understanding and reason as a light to this world. We will furnish our reason and understanding with knowledge which will be of use in this world and in the world to come. We avoid idleness and neglect and understand that reason and understanding are a talent, a gift given by the Lord for His glory. We are thankful and humble to be used for the service of the Lord.

3. Memory: While some things that we study we may forget, we employ our memory to assist us in our callings that we may serve Jesus and improve ourselves in knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

4. Conscience: We will be diligent in keeping our conscience clean, active, and renewed. Our conscience provides us with vigilance and caution. We ask for God’s grace to prevent us from repeating instances when we have violated our conscience through sin.

5. Seeing God’s Works in His Creation and Providence: We understand that it is only through God’s grace that we can observe His hand in the world around us. We recognize that in God, all things “live and move and have their being” (Acts 17:28). With this recognition, we are compelled to honor, admire, worship, serve, obey, rest in, depend on, and give reverence to Him who is Holy.

6. God’s Special Providence to Mankind: The people who live upright in purity, temperance, justice, mercy, gentleness, patience, and forbearance are found to be joyful, happy, and blessed. This lifestyle produces serenity and quietness of mind, as well as contentment. Additionally, the person who lives in this manner has assurance of eternal enjoyments.

7. My Speech: It is excellent use of the tongue to set forth God’s glory, goodness, wisdom, and Truth, to encourage others, instruct others in the knowledge of God, to reprove sin, to promote virtue and good living, to persuade good works, charity, and peace with the highest degree of elocution that we are capable of.

8. Time on Earth: We do not know how long our lives will last but we do know our time is short. It is our duty to sow the seeds we have been given here while we are able for the glory of God. We must not be idle but must exercise ourselves in fulfilling the duties of our calling. Our secular employment is an exercise of Christian duty and through it we honor our Lord. We are an example of grace, diligence without anxiety, dependence on God without presumption, contentedness, patience, thankfulness, honesty, justice, uprightness, and plain dealing. We dedicate regular time to prayer and the reading of the Word, and we allow Jesus to transform our lives.

9. Caring for God’s Creatures and His Creation: God has given us dominion over His creatures and His creation. When there is plenty, we recognize that it is a blessing from the Lord. We are stewards of all that we own as God has entrusted us. We are merciful and compassionate toward God’s creatures.

10. Of Knowledge and Learning: The early knowledge we have accumulated is but dross compared to knowing Christ. We seek to discover God’s wisdom and truth and translate our secular knowledge into an improvement of divine knowledge. Our studies can enlarge our minds for useful inquiries, carry us to a greater knowledge of Christ, keep us from idleness, and keep us from temptation. It is through God’s strength and blessing that we are able learn and understand. The more we learn, the more we realize the depth of our ignorance and imperfection.

11. Prudence: Hale asserts that justice and honesty should be mingled with prudence. If injustice and falsity are combined with prudence, it produces unholy results. Honesty and plain-dealing keep the deceiver away. Prudence is best used to preserve and support Truth. This makes assisting the oppressed, righting the injured, preventing wars, and the preservation of peace in society possible. I give God glory when my prudence is successful.

12. Elocution: “The ability to speak is a shortcut to distinction,” says author Dale Carnegie. In his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster defines elocution as, “Pronunciation; the utterance or delivery of words, particularly in public discourses and arguments” and “the act of expressing thoughts with elegance or beauty.” Matthew Hale’s book encourages its reader to use the gift of elocution with truth and integrity, striving to use the gift of rhetoric to further good and expose evil. Hale understood the using elocution for God’s glory brings life and energy and without God, elocution is lacking or dead.

13. Health, Strength, Beauty: The body must be kept subservient to the soul. The body was given to serve and obey during our time on earth. If left unchecked, it can corrupt the soul. While the body will one day die, the soul is eternal, immortal. Moderate diet, temperance, labor, and diligence will keep the body healthy and the soul content. There are two extremes that can be fallen to: one, that the body becomes and idol and one can be overly concerned with its maintenance, and two, that the body is neglected and care is not taken to keep it in a good state of health. Beauty is a gift from God and eventually, all physical beauty fades.

14. Wealth: Acquiring wealth does not happen apart from Divine Providence. The collection of many years may be quickly dissipated. A man is not made a better Christian because he has wealth. Rather, the blessing of wealth, if it is given, is designed to increase God’s Grace in that man’s heart. Stewardship is a talent given by God for His Glory. It is a breach of God’s trust to consume the wealth He has given excessively. We cannot take our wealth with us when we leave this world.

15. Positions of Power and Influence: When placed in a position of power and influence, it is so that God’s call may be answered, not our own ambitions. In holding a position of authority, one must remain humble. These positions hold risk such as sliding away from Jesus, replacing him with pride, envy, and other sins. Leading from a position of authority requires honesty, vigilance, diligence, executing justice, faithfulness, virtue, conscience, and goodness. Daily consultation in God’s Word is imperative.

16. Reputation: Seek a reputation of justice, honesty, integrity, virtue, and piety. A blemish in reputation is dishonorable to God. Vigilance and care should be taken to preserve one’s reputation. There is delight and value in a good reputation. The Devil will aim to hit the reputation of a godly man, thus virtue should be placed above reputation. After all, Hale implores, “who knoweth whether God hath given thee this Reputation and Esteem for such a time as this?”

A Prayer of Gratitude

In response to the general gift of the talents we have been given by God, Hale offers this prayer:

As to all Blessings and Talents wherewith thou hast entrusted me:

I have looked up to thee with a thankful heart, as the only Author and Giver of them.

I have looked upon myself as Unworthy of them.

I have looked upon them as committed to my Trust and Stewardship, to manage them for the end that they were given, the honour of my Lord and Master.

I have therefore been Watchful and Sober in the use and exercise of them, lest I should be unfaithful in them.

If I have at any time, through weakness, or inadvertence, or temptation, mis-imployed any of them, I have been reckless till I have in some measure rectified my miscarriage by Repentance and Amendment.

As iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17) may we model the faith and virtue of those gone before us and raise up a generation of children wholly submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The trajectory of a nation may change not just on what we read but on what we do. We are asking readers to consider lifting one of these bullet points each week and presenting them to your family during devotion times, seeking God’s Word in them, and working to live them out.

We would love to hear back from you as you do! Please email jdiffenderfer@dayspringchristian.com.


Works Cited:

“Fatherhood and Motherhood in Colonial America.” Digital History, 2019, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/topic_display.cfm?tcid=83.

Dax-Setkus, Jessie. “Colonial Family Life.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, family.lovetoknow.com/about-family-values/colonial-family-life.

Hall, V. and Dimmick, D., 1999. The Christian History Of The American Revolution. San Francisco, Calif.: Foundation for American Christian Education, pp.123-143.