God's Providence in American History

The Founders of America had a providential view of history. In an address to the United States Congress in 1866, historian George Bancroft reflected this predominant philosophy when he said: “That God rules in the affairs of men is as certain as any truth of physical science.” 1

American history is filled with instances of God’s supernatural intervention in important events. In the colonial era, this included, among myriads of examples, Pocahontas providentially saving John Smith’s life, God sending Squanto to help the Pilgrims survive in their new home, William Penn receiving a charter “through my God” to start a new colony, the miraculous defeat of the French fleet sent to destroy America in 1746, the great outpouring of God’s Spirit during the First Great Awakening, and God preserving Washington’s life during the French and Indian War. God’s providence continued during the American Revolution and was acknowledged by all.

In reviewing the events of the first few years of the Revolutionary War, George Washington wrote in 1778: “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all of this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” 2

A conspicuous providential event that occurred two years later was the discovery of Benedict’s Arnold’s treason. In September 1780, “a combination of extraordinary circumstances” 3 occurred that led to the capture of British Major John André and the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s plan to yield West Point to the British. Washington explained what happened in a letter to General William Heath: “Major General Arnold has gone to the Enemy. He had had an interview with Major André, Adjutant General of the British Army, and had put into his possession a state of our Army; of the Garrison at this post; ... By a most providential interposition, Major André was taken in returning to New York with all these papers in General Arnold’s handwriting, who hearing of the matter kept it secret, left his Quarters immediately under pretence of going over to West Point on Monday forenoon, ... then pushed down the river in the barge, which was not discovered till I had returned from West Point in the Afternoon.” 4

After André had met with Arnold and obtained the information, he was traveling back to New York in civilian dress to deliver it to his superiors. On the road, he encountered a few American militiamen whom he mistook for loyalists. He talked too freely, which aroused their suspicion. They searched André and found the incriminating papers in his stockings. “They were offered,” Washington wrote, “a large sum of money for his release, and as many goods as they would demand, but without effect. Their conduct gives them a just claim to the thanks of their country.” 5 The militiamen took André to the nearest military outpost, where the officer, not realizing Arnold’s participation in the plot, notified him of André’s capture. Thus warned, Arnold fled to British lines. Had his treasonous plans not been found out, West Point would have fallen into British hands, which would have been a blow too great for the Continentals to sustain.

General Arnold plots his treasonous act with Major Andre. Washington said, "The providential train of circumstances which led to it (the discovery of the plot) affords the most convincing proof that the liberties of America are the object of divine Protection."