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.


James H. said...

The book you mentioned above (Faiths of the Founding Fathers) also discusses the alleged prayer of Washington at V. Forge. It makes a pretty stong case against any prayer taking place. Washington detested praying on his knees. In fact, he refused to do it once he became an adult. Even in church, while everyone else kneeled in prayer, Washington would stand.

Brian Tubbs said...

The painting of Washington praying at Valley Forge is as accurate as the one showing him standing in the boat crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton.

Bottom line...the painting is probably embellished, but it represents a core truth - namely that George Washington was a man of prayer. NO ONE can argue against that! Whether he prayed on his knees or standing up is a side issue. The man prayed. THAT much is certain.

And he had every reason to pray - and pray hard - at Valley Forge.

Corazon said...

And that is an important point Brian brings up. No doubt Washington prayed. I think paintings like this (and of the Delaware crossing) serve to remind us that Washingon became greater than legend. He was embellished in all of these stories. Sespite this fact, the CORE elements of who Washinton was still remain.

Brian Tubbs said...

Thanks, corazon. I have a problem with extremes. Not saying that whoever authored this article is guilty of committing extremes.

But I've read and heard criticisms of this Valley Forge prayer "myth" so many times that it frustrates me. The argument goes like this: The painting is a myth, because the "eyewitness account" behind it has been discredited and Washington didn't like to kneel in prayer. Therefore, the painting is false. And, therefore, the conclusion is either stated or implied: Washington didn't pray at Valley Forge.

But that conclusion HARDLY follows. If someone were to paint me kneeling in prayer - in the snow - next to a horse, then obviously the painting would be false. I've never done that. But I do pray.

It's like challenging certain details of the painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (and details of that painting HAVE been challenged) and then concluding that the Declaration wasn't signed!

Corazon said...

I think this has been one of the more interesting discussions we have had on this blog. In my opinion, it brings up two distinct, but important points: First, that the legacy of the Founding Fathers is often tainted by mythical stories, half truths, or something of that sort. This is what I believe has happened with the Washington prayer story (and the cherry tree, wood teeth, etc). The other issue I think Brian has adequately addressed, which is the fact that despite these mythical tales the Founding Fathers (and George Washington in this instance) did accomplish great things. Assuming that the prayer story is a total fabrication is still does not eliminate the fact that Washington prayed throughout his life. The question of how he prayed or how often he prayed becomes irrelevant. Great comments on this one!

Anonymous said...

I agree, because the biographer stated that G.Washington detested praying on his knees tells me that he prayed. I have done genealogy on my family for years. Many were from a county in NE PA.....people kept journals, diaries, whatever, a lot way back then. In this historical book about the county relating stories of the different familes who had settled there, one man was mentioned who had returned from the Revolution and in relating stories to his family about time served under G. Washington at Valley Forge, he mentioned see G. Washington praying. This was before paintings or books on the subject ever came out. Why would he mention it? He was talking about how much respect he had for the man. Frustrating that people try to tear down the fact that great leaders could believe in God!!!

Margaret said...

Aloha! The painting of George Washington praying at Valley Forge is a HUGE painting in the United States Capitol Building. It is TRUE that Washington was well known as a man of prayer! Lots of our American History has been forgotten. I'm so glad that we have David Barton, owner of thousands of Founding Fathers documents and letters to remind us of the truth. His web site is He published a book called Bulletproof Washington. In this book, the Native Americans were baffled because they knew they had shot arrows at Washington and they knew he should have died. However, God spared him. There's tons of great resources (articles, books, posters, etc.) on Barton's web site. I wrote most of my American History papers in college using his materials. Great stuff! Aloha & May God Bless America!