Friday, November 16, 2007
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. Homes, churches, office buildings, etc decorate their walls with this extremely powerful portrayal of America's first president. Completed in 1976 by Arnold Friberg, the painting was in commemoration of America's bicentennial festivities. But how accurate is it? Recent inquiry into the religious life of George Washington has uncovered some interesting findings. Did Washington actually pray 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 came from an 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 in deep prayer. Potts, who was against the war, allegedly had a change of heart upon seeing the General in prayer. This story went unreported for roughly 40 years until Reverend Nathaniel Snowden revealed the story, which he had recorded in his journal. Here is an excerpt from that journal:
I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods & 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, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world.
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. She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, & 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 no proof that Rev. Snowden ever or knew met Isaac Potts. In fact, there are several problems in the Journal entry. Snowden records the name of Potts's wife to be Sarah, when in fact her name was Martha. The family biographers of the Potts family also point out that Isaac Potts did not work at or around Valley Forge until after the war. Some historians have even suggested that Snowden later reported the story to be somewhat inaccurate, when faced with the evidence. Joseph Ellis, a biographer of Washington, has even pointed out specific moments when Washington recorded the fact that he detested praying on his knees.
This story 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.
Despite your personal feelings, the Prayer at Valley Forge has become an important symbol for millions of Americans. Even if it is a fraud (and there is a lot of evidence to suggest so), the story of America's first Commander-in-Chief kneeling in prayer has been a source of inspiration for generations of Americans.