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Friday, March 13, 2009

Did George Washington Pray at Valley Forge?

Nearly every American has seen this painting. In fact, it has become one of the best selling pieces of art in recent years. Thousands of homes, churches, office buildings, etc. have adorned their walls with this extremely powerful portrayal of America's first president/general kneeling in humble prayer. As is common with the legacy of our Founding Fathers, Americans today gain a sense of pride, reverence, and even patriotism when witnessing poignant recreations such as the one captured in this painting.
But how accurate is it? Did George Washington really pray at Valley Forge?

Officially known as "The Prayer at Valley Forge", artist Arnold Friberg chose to capture what he called, "The spirit of 1776" by painting this picture for the American bicentennial festivities of 1976. Since then, Friberg's painting has become one of the top selling pieces of American art and has inspired a countless number of "copycat" artists, who have capitalized on creating similar pieces of art. The painting has also become a source of controversy between Christian conservatives and secularists, who seem to be caught up in a constant battle over America's founding legacy.

So what are the facts surrounding the "Prayer at Valley Forge?"

The original story of George Washington kneeling in prayer comes from a source that is questionable to say the least. The story allegedly originated from a young man named Isaac Potts, who is the supposed eyewitness to this event. It is said that Potts was riding along one day when he came across General Washington, hidden in the woods and caught up in deep prayer. Potts, who was originally against the war, stated that he experienced a change of heart upon seeing the General in prayer. The story then went unreported for roughly 40 years until Potts allegedly revealed his experience to his pastor, Reverend Nathaniel Snowden. Reverend Snowden then purportedly copied what Potts had told him in his journal, in the hopes that the story would be protected for posterity. Here is an excerpt from Snowden's journal:

I tied my horse to a sapling and went quietly into the woods and to my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, and the cause of the country, of humanity and of the world.
Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home and 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 and heard and observed. We never thought a man c’d be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, and America could prevail.
The powerful imagery of General Washington beseeching God to bless and protect his army is moving to say the least. The problem with the story, however, is that there is little to no proof of its veracity. First off, it is highly unlikely that Reverend Snowden ever knew or associated with Isaac Potts. Family history records have proven that the Potts family did not move to the Valley Forge area until 1800 (Washington was dead by then). Also, it is worth noting that Reverend Snowden's journal account records the name of Potts's wife to be Sarah, when in fact her name was Martha. In addition, Snowden's journal states that he heard the story from a man named "John," not Isaac Potts. Simply put, Reverend Snowden's journal is too unreliable to support the Valley Forge story.

Along with the questionable journal entries, it is worth noting that Isaac Potts never had a change of heart when it came to the war. In addition, several critics of Snowden claimed that the Reverend recanted his story when presented with the evidence.

So why would Snowden lie?

It is a known fact that a number of religious leaders from several different churches attempted to "claim" George Washington as their own. After all, Washington was a living legend in his time. To have the religious endorsement of America's first general and first president would be extremely impressive in the eyes of the common citizenry. As a result, scores of religious leaders of the 18th century have distorted the true nature of Washington's faith.

While it is true that Washington was known for attending church with some regularity, it is important to recognize the fact that Washington was far from being an orthodox believer. First off, though Washington attended several religious services over the course of his life, he refused to be confirmed a member of any one denomination. Washington strongly opposed an orthodox allegiance in religious affairs (as he did in political affairs as well). It is also an established fact that Washington refused to take communion of any kind when attending church services. In fact, a number of religious leaders expressed disappointment at the fact that Washington would not participate in communion. During communion, it was common of Washington to simply walk out of church in the middle of the ceremony. Even Washington's ecclesiastical leader while in Philadelphia, the Reverend William White, recognized that Washington regularly refused communion:

In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say, that General Washington never received communion, in the churches of which I am a parochial minister.
In addition to Reverend William White, Dr. James Abercrombie also took note of Washington's habit of avoiding communion:

O]n Sacrament Sundays, Gen'l Washington, immediately after the Desk and Pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation, always leaving Mrs. Washington with the communicants, she invariably being one, I considered it my duty, in a sermon on Public Worship, to sate the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President, and, as such, he received it. A few days after, in conversation with, I believe, a Senator of the U. S., he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said, that on the preceding Sunday, he had received a very just reproof from the public, for always leaving the church before the administration of the Sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candour; that he had never considered the influence of his example; that he would never again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never become a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he afterwards never came on the morning of Sacrament Sundays, tho', at other times, constant attending in the morning...

...That Washington was a professing Christian is evident from his regular attendance in our church; but, Sir, I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion.

The father of our country, whenever in this city, as well as during the Revolutionary Was as during his presidency, attended divine service in Christ Church of this city...His behavior was always serious and attentive; but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to truth to declare, that I never saw him in the said attitude.
White continued his appraisal of Washington's faith by stating:

I do not believe that any degree of recollection would bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation; further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance on Christian worship, in connection with the natural reserve of his character.
Despite these facts, the "Prayer of Valley Forge" legend has received incredible publicity and attention over the years. In 1866, artist John McRae was commissioned by the United States to create an engraving of this event.

Later, the Valley Forge Park Commission was given a grant to create a statue of McRae's engraving, which was to be placed at the entrance to Valley Forge Park. The Park authorities refused, stating that there was ample evidence to suggest that the Washington prayer story was a hoax. Despite the decision of park authorities, tours were conducted until roughly 1930, which took travelers to various locations where Washington had allegedly knelt in prayer.

And even though the story behind the painting is an utter fraud, it is important to recognize how powerful the symbol of America's first Commander-in-Chief kneeling in prayer has become for modern Americans. Despite all of the damning evidence that refutes the validity of the "Prayer at Valley Forge," it is likely that this painting will continue to grace the walls of homes, schools, churches, etc. for years to come. Besides, isn't the myth sometimes more appealing than the truth?

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