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Music and the Spoken Word: When George Washington said, 'Don't be afraid'

Nearing the end of his life, President George Washington offered a final message to one of his attendants: "Don't be afraid."

Editor's note: “The Spoken Word” is shared by Lloyd Newell each Sunday during the weekly Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcast. This will be given Feb. 18, 2018.

In the middle of a frigid, snowy night in 1799, George Washington woke his wife and told her that he felt ill. She noticed that his breathing was labored and his voice was faint. Concerned about her husband, Mrs. Washington offered to go for help, but he insisted that she wait until morning.

It was discovered that General Washington had a serious throat infection and would likely not survive. As people at Mount Vernon tried desperately to relieve the general’s pain and save his life, Washington noticed that one of his attendants seemed particularly anxious. He looked into the man’s worried eyes and gathered the strength to say, as clearly as he could, “Don’t be afraid” (see Tobias Lear, diary entry for Dec. 14, 1799, National Archives).

Washington may as well have been speaking to all of us — from generals and presidents who would have to lead the nation without him to ordinary men and women who have to face new personal challenges each day.

To be sure, there was reason to be afraid on the day George Washington died — and fearful experiences certainly lay ahead for the country he loved. But there was also reason to be courageous. Perhaps the most inspiring of these was the example of Washington himself.

We remember George Washington as the brave leader of the American Revolution and the first president of the United States. He was the first person to sign the Constitution and is considered the father of the country. But he preferred to think of himself as “Farmer Washington.” Devoid of lust for power, he knew when to serve and when to resign. Where other great leaders quickly turned into tyrants, only to see power slip from their hands, Washington was courageous enough to let go.

Could this be why George Washington was able to say to his fearful friend, during a frightening time, “Don’t be afraid”?

We honor Washington and other great presidents for the good things they do for the country, for leading with courage and letting go with courage. We don’t know what the future holds, but if we are committed to doing the right thing, we can step forward confidently and say to others who might be fearful, “Don’t be afraid.”

Tuning in …

The “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast is available on KSL-TV, KSL Radio 1160 AM/102.7 FM,, KSL X-stream, BYU-TV, BYU Radio, BYU-TV International, CBS Radio Network, Dish Network, DirecTV, SiriusXM Radio (Channel 143), and The program is aired live on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. MST on many of these outlets. Look up broadcast information by state and city at