When he agreed to play the part of George Washington for a July 4 worship service 11 years ago, Texas pastor Mark Collins didn’t know that his life was about to change forever.
He looked so much like Washington and gave such an excellent performance that his inaugural portrayal of America’s first president at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, where he was then associate pastor, catapulted him into a career of Washington reenactments.
Today his resume includes appearances in the movie “National Treasure 2,” a 13-part History Channel mini-series and several other television and movie roles. He has also performed live at the National Cathedral, Mt. Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, the Republican National Convention and various political gatherings.
Best of all, he has seen hundreds of people worldwide come to faith in Christ as a result of his portrayals of Washington’s faith.
“It’s been such an amazing thing to see how the Lord has used it,” Collins told TEXAN Digital in an interview. “He’s allowed me to get into doors that as Pastor Mark Collins I could never get open.”
When he first portrayed Washington in 2001, Collins had long been involved in drama, but it had been decades since he did any serious acting. Nonetheless, he decided to go all out for the role. Over four months, he grew his hair out from a flattop to the traditional length for men in colonial America and he began to research Washington.
On the day of the performance, the pastor introduced the worship service’s guest speaker as the president of the United States, adding, “His close friends call him G.W.” Then he paused dramatically.
Naturally, some in the congregation thought George W. Bush was about to appear and were surprised when Collins emerged in full Washington garb. He shared in first-person about the first president’s Christian faith, including his commitment to spend the first and last hour of every day in prayer, and closed the address by kneeling and reciting a prayer from Washington’s prayer journal.
“I was just having a good time,” Collins said. “This was a good, fun thing to do on a Sunday. But when I stood up from that prayer and opened my eyes, about a third of the people in the church were weeping. And I was stunned, [wondering], ‘Lord, what did you just do here?’”
His new career had begun. The following week the pastor of nearby First Baptist Church in La Vernia invited Collins to present the same performance in his church, and the ministry of Washington reenactments snowballed from there.
Collins’ speaking schedule became so full that he did not attend his own church again for four months. Eventually he spoke as Washington all over the world and appeared in numerous movies and television programs.
His physical resemblance to Washington is remarkable. A plaster mask was made of Washington’s face when he was age 53, and from it historians know exactly what he looked like. When a photo of one side of Washington’s mask is lined up with a photo of half of Collins’ face at age 43, it almost appears to be one photo of the same person.
“I’m 51 now,” Collins said. “So when I’m 53 … I want to go back and do it again [have another photo lined up with Washington’s face] and see how close it is.”
First Baptist Church in Yorktown, where Collins is pastor, regards the Washington portrayals as a ministry and allows its pastor up to 12 Sundays away each year. The results of the ministry can only be attributed to God.
For instance, while speaking at Nassau Bay Baptist Church in the Houston area, he met two men from Kenya. They told him that their nation was writing a new constitution and needed to hear his presentation about the U.S. Constitution’s basis in Judeo-Christian values. Not realizing the men were serious about his coming, Collins casually agreed to visit Africa.
Two months later an official invitation came, and Collins flew to Africa to speak as Washington to the government leaders of Kenya and Zimbabwe in January 2012. Zimbabwe’s Council of Education was so impressed with his presentation that it asked for copies of the “New England Primmer”—a Bible-based reading textbook used in colonial America—and had plans to use material from it in the nation’s schools.
In addition to African government venues, Collins spoke as Washington in evangelistic settings as well and showed the Jesus Film. As a result, hundreds came to faith in Christ during his three-week trip.
Africans “wanted George Washington,” Collins said. “I brought George with us, George in a bag, because I knew I was going to be speaking to parliament and all of the different agencies. But the churches wanted George, and I was blown away at how much knowledge they have of the political environment of the United States.”
His presentations have borne evangelistic fruit in America too. Recently, after a presentation at Roma High School, a student asked Collins why Washington’s faith was so important to him. Collins directed her to a local pastor, who led her to Christ. At churches he brings the gospel into his presentation explicitly and has seen many people saved as a result.
“National Treasure 2” was perhaps Collins’ most prominent Washington reenactment. Though he appeared in only one scene, playing the part of a fictional Washington reenactor at a U.S. president’s birthday party, the role opened many doors.
The actress who played Martha Washington in the same scene was well known as a professional Washington reenactor and helped Collins get invited to perform at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., during a ceremony honoring the state of Virginia. Later, she invited him to perform with her at Colonial Williamsburg.
As Washington, Collins has also appeared at Gov. Rick Perry’s Prayer Breakfast, the Focus on the Family National Day of Prayer chapel service in Colorado, a Washington celebration in Mexico and in programs on the Discovery Channel and Spike TV.
Through it all, he says his mission is to teach people how important Christianity was to Washington and call them to a similar faith in Jesus. While some Christians in previous generations wrongly portrayed America’s first president as a super-Christian, in the last 50 years the pendulum has swung too far the other way, Collins said, with secularists attempting to erase Washington’s Christianity from historical memory.
When the real story is presented, God uses it to draw people to himself, he emphasized.
“It’s wonderful to see God use what you would think would be more of a political message,” Collins said.