George Washington

Independence Day—”Victory or Death,” History, and Spirituality

The military password during the Battle of Trenton in 1776 was “Victory or Death.” The British Empire had been engaged in battle with the colonists for a year. The colonists wanted liberty. They were willing to die for it. They were willing to kill for it.

After leaving New Jersey after the Battle of Trenton, across the Delaware River, General Washington led the volunteer continental army to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Poorly outfitted, some lacked shoes. A trail of bloodstains could be seen in the snow-covered pathway. The conditions were so awful at Valley Forge that 1 in 7 died from starvation or disease.[1] No doubt their immune systems were weakened due to the loss of food and lack of adequate clothing and shelter. 

Once winter passed, the conditions were still quite odious at Valley Forge. On April 21, 1778, George Washington wrote:

“To see the men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lie upon, without shoes…without a house or hut to cover them until those could be built, and submitting without a murmur, is a proof of patience and obedience which, in my opinion, can scarcely be paralleled.”[2] 

During great strain, some tend to look heavenward. Abraham Lincoln would say many decades later, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” Prayer in such times becomes even more sincere. Even Jesus “being in an agony…prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44). It was at this time that a man named Isaac Potts walked up on George Washington who was praying aloud. Potts told Rev. Nathaniel Randolf Snowden the following who recorded it in his personal diary. The Reverend wrote, quoting Potts: 

“Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home & told my wife. I saw a sight and heard today what I never saw or heard before, and just related to her what I had seen & heard & observed. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world it is Washington. We thought it was the cause of God, & America could prevail.” [sic] [3]

The truth is Christians can be soldiers. Washington was such a man. Christians believe that Christ overcame death. The “victory or death” password at the Battle of Trenton gave cause for the reasons to fight—to fight for liberty and freedom. After all, Patrick Henry said in his impassioned speech on March 23, 1775, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Liberty is the fabric and foundation of life in America. All the nations of the world deserve freedom. With freedom and liberty comes responsibility. That responsibility is forged in civility and moral ethos. Those moral values are foundational to religion. Is there any doubt that freedom of conscience and religion were written as the First Amendment? It’s that important. The American patriots wanted to worship how they wished. They didn’t want to worship King George; they wanted to worship God and be free. They were mainly Christians who believed in Jesus Christ.

While there is a greater push for a lack of religion in social and political circles, we must be wise about where we draw the line or where we understand the line to be. “Churches and people of faith must not allow themselves to be intimidated and silenced,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.[4] As an attorney and former clerk to the Supreme Court, he understands well both freedoms and the law. Likewise, Elder Neal A. Maxwell wisely opined that an irreligious test for political office would be a disaster, that specifically “irreligion as the state religion would be the worst of all combinations.” He added, “Our founding fathers did not wish to have a state church established nor to have a particular religion favored by government. They wanted religion to be free to make its own way. But neither did they intend to have irreligion made into a favored state church.”[5]

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America nearly 200 years ago, he understood what helped America maintain liberty. Some misquote him, but I found this gem a couple of years ago when reading his writings. He wrote, 

“Religion perceives that civil liberty affords a noble exercise to the faculties of man, and that the political world is a field prepared by the Creator for the efforts of the intelligence. Contented with the freedom and the power which it enjoys in its own sphere, and with the place which it occupies, the empire of religion is never more surely established than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength.

“Religion is no less the companion of liberty in all its battles and its triumphs; the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law as well as the surest pledge of freedom.”[6]

In conclusion, religious freedom is under attack. “There are concerted efforts to shame and intimidate believers who have traditional moral values and to suppress religious viewpoints and practices regarding marriage, family, gender, and sexuality [and] government sometimes joins in these efforts.” But “religion and religious freedom are deeply connected to both the formation of America and our ongoing effort” to protect the Constitution.[7] Therefore, just as powerfully and as tenaciously as the founding fathers and the lesser known or unknown soldiers sacrificed their lives, so we should be willing to make a similar pledge. I will conclude with the last line of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

*Image: The Prayer at Valley Forge by John C. McRae.;jsessionid=33683BD25B479849C3D55FFB412E50B4

[1] Ferling, J. (2010, Jan.). Myths of the American Revolution

[2] Burnett, J. (2011, Dec. 13). Wintering at Valley Forget National Historical Park in the footsteps of the continental army. National Parks Traveler.

[3] Jones, G. S. (1945, April). Prayer of Valley Forge may be legend or tradition or a fact, yet it remains a symbol of faith. Valley Forge Society. The Picket Post, 9

[4] Christofferson, D. T. (2016, June 26). Religious freedom—A cherished heritage to defend. BYU Speeches.

[5] Maxwell, N. A. (1978, Oct. 10). Meeting the challenges of today. BYU Speeches.

[6] de Tocqueville, A. (1841). Democracy in America, trans. by Henry Reeve, Esq. Vol 1 (1 of 2 vol) 4th edition. NY: J.& H.G. Langley. p. 44. By Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry Reeve, John Canfield Spencer, University of Pittsburgh.

[7] Supra note 4.

Jeffrey Denning

Jeffrey has written award-winning articles for the Washington Times,, and other publications. He is the author of seven books, including Warrior SOS: Military Veterans’ Stories of Faith, Emotional Survival and Living with PTSD. He teaches courses on peer support, suicide prevention, and other mental wellness and resilience to public safety professionals. If you would like Jeff to speak at your event or training please contact him HERE.

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