Saturday, May 10, 2008

Did Washington Pray at Valley Forge?


Though we've discussed this before, I discovered some new evidence and thought it would be fun to bring this topic up yet again.

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 kneeling in 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 this painting.

But how accurate is it? Did 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 & 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 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 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, and that he held organized religion "in high regard," 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.

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against the Valley Forge painting is the simple fact that George Washington refused to pray on his knees. Historians and biographers of Washington have pointed out the fact that Washington would choose to stand instead of kneel when praying. In fact, Washington made it clear to his military advisers that he detested anything that brought a man to his knees.

Despite these facts, the "Prayer of Valley Forge" 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 Forgehas become an important symbol for millions of Americans. Even though the story behind the painting is an utter fraud, it is important to recognize the fact that Washington was, in the end, a man of prayer. As a revolutionary leader it would be natural for a man of Washington's status to refuse kneeling in prayer. Though not an orthodox follower of Christianity, Washington should be remembered as religious individual.

33 comments:

Hercules Mulligan said...

Hi Brad. Interesting post. I think that it is very probable that Washington prayed at Valley Forge, even if Snowden's testimony may not be of confirmed accuracy. I know that he prayed regularly during the war, according to the testimony of his officers and family members. I remember reading a testimony by his nephew, who said that at Mount Vernon (after the War, of course), he found Washington kneeling beside a chair with an open Bible on top of it. So I am not sure where this other information that Washington never kneeled comes from. Do you think you could include some sources? I am interested in looking this up. I have already written a post on this subject on one of my blogs, but it concerns Washington's faith more than the Valley Forge prayer issue:
http://meetthefounders.blogspot.com/2008/01/response-concerning-washingtons-faith.html

I also responded to your kind comment on my blog Herculean Reflections. I am not sure if you subscribed to receive email updates of subsequent comments on that post, so I am letting you know here that my (lengthy) response is there:
http://herkyreflects.blogspot.com/2008/02/intolerance-of-tolerant.html

Brad said...

Thanks for the comment, Hercules. While I agree with you that Washington was a religious person, I also agree with historians when they mention the fact that he did not like to kneel in prayer. I think this is consistent with his personality as well.

As far as sources, I know that Ellis talks about it in his book, "His Excellency." The sources he uses (and I use) come from the "Papers of George Washington," which include 3 letters where Washington mentions this himself. I'll track them down for you the next time i'm in the library.

Thanks for the comment.

Jonathan said...

Here is a post I did which notes the testimony of GW's nephew to be unsubstantiated hearsay:

http://positiveliberty.com/2006/07/george-washingtonstill-wasnt-a-christian.html

Re actual testimony that GW didn't kneel, Nelly Custis and Bishop White give eyewitness testimony. Here is Nelly's:

http://personal.pitnet.net/primarysources/nelly.html

My grandmother, who was eminently pious, never deviated from her early habits. She always knelt. The General, as was then the custom, stood during the devotional parts of the service. On communion Sundays, he left the church with me, after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back for my grandmother.

I'll hunt down the primary source where William White likewise notes GW didn't kneel. He and Dr. Abercrombie (GW's minister for the 8-years he was in Philadelphia) also give key eyewitness testimony that Washington didn't commune. That GW didn't commune and that he never clarified why or issued a satisfactory declaration of faith but rather systematically spoke of a generic intervening Providence should give any serious student of history serious reason to strongly doubt his orthodoxy.

Brad said...

Thanks for the sources, Jonathan. By the way, I LOVED your stuff on Romans 13. I've become a regular reader.

Also, I found the quote from Ellis: "Washington's lack of orthodoxy is evidenced by his refusal to kneel in prayer or pray publicly."

This sort of goes along with what Jonathan was saying.

In the end, I guess it's a little silly to debate whether or not Washington knelt in prayer. From what I’ve read, it is clear that the man did, in the end, pray. Jonathan is right to mention the fact that Washington cannot be considered an orthodox Christian.

With that said, I wonder where it would be appropriate to rank Washington on the Deist/orthodox Christian scale. I think that David Holmes, author of "Faiths of the Founding Fathers," is the most accurate in his assumption that Washington was a Christian Deist, with more of a leaning towards the Christian side.

What do you all think? I'd love to get your input.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Brad.

I think you are exactly right about the "Christian-Deist" description of Washington. It's similar to Gregg Frazer term "theistic rationalist" which basically defines as in between Christianity and Deism, but since such system rejects orthodox doctrines it can't be considered "Christian" to those who, like Dr. Frazer, equate Christianity with orthodox Trinitarianism.

Washington's a tough nut to crack on the specifics. I've found smoking gun quotations from Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin that they rejected original sin, the trinity, incarnation, atonement, infallibility of the Bible. But Washington and Madison to a lesser extent, held their religious cards close to them and don't evince the same "smoking guns."

I'm inclined to believe that Washington was agnostic on those creeds of orthodoxy that Jefferson, Franklin and J. Adams actively rejected. Jefferson and Adams thought those doctrines downright harmful and pernicious. Washington, perhaps after Franklin (see his letter to Ezra Stiles) probably thought them unimportant. Or if he did think them important (as orthodox Christians do; they think them central to Christianity) the record provides little evidence of it.

The context of Nelly Custis' letter I reproduced above was that folks were starting to chatter about Washington not being a "real believer," and she basically tried to defend his public reputation. She had a line that "deeds not words" were his motto. (Therefore buzzoff and stop talking s--t about his not being a Christian.) I'm sorry, but "deeds not words" is not biblical. The Bible says, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

Most scholars now (accurately) note that one certain thing Washington believed in was an active, intervening Providence.

The way I understand orthodox Christianity, it believes itself to be true, other religions false, and Jesus the only way to God.

GW et al. had no problem with folks believing in this because he/they supported "religion" in general. But his systematic religious speak absolutely does NOT indicate he personally believed in this system, just prayer and an active personal, generic philosophical God.

Jonathan said...

Here is the primary source from googlebooks on Bishop White on GW not kneeling. Pages 188-200 are worth a close read because they have White responding to various inquiries about GW's faith. And it's quite balanced. He doesn't, like Dr. Abercrombie, suggest GW's behavior makes him not a "real Christian," but testifies, 1) he didn't kneel when praying; 2) systematically avoided communion; and 3) had a strong reserve about disclosing the specifics of his religious opinions.

http://books.google.com/books?id=mkYFAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA199&lpg=PA199&dq=%22george+washington%22,+%22william+white%22&source=web&ots=zzUpe7ZS1e&sig=YkGU9TzbhmXvlyPFVhQGExYH6xM&hl=en#PPA189,M1

Jonathan said...

Blogger isn't reproducing the links too kindly so I've linked to the last one here.

Hercules Mulligan said...

At the immediate moment, I have no time to address specifics. But I would like, if I may, to comment on the kind of evidence that has been presented.

It is no solid proof of Washington's "unorthodoxy" (if by that term you mean "not believing the Bible") that he didn't regularly commune, didn't publicly kneel in church, was criticized by a tory clergyman (who labeled Washington a deist) who was not favorably disposed toward Washington anyway, etc etc.

That evidence, by itself, might imply that Washington was not a Christian, or for some strange reason was uncomfortable being associated with it. But that is merely circumstantial evidence; it is not proof.

Better evidence should be sought for in Washington's own writings. So far, I have never heard or read a written statement of Washington's which expressly denied or contradicted something in the Bible. He seemed to believe in the Bible, rather than deny it.

For instance, when he was elected first US President, he started working on a draft of an address to Congress, which he never finished and never presented. The text is available online here.

In it, Washington writes:

"The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes. Should, hereafter, those who are intrusted with the management of this government, incited by the lust of power and prompted by the Supineness or venality of their Constituents, overleap the known barriers of this Constitution and violate the unalienable rights of humanity: it will only serve to shew, that no compact among men (however provident in its construction and sacred in its ratification) can be pronounced everlasting and inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no Wall of words, that no mound of parchmt. can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other." (emphasis added)

Here, not only does Washington refer to Christianity as revealed, but as revealed from the WORD of GOD, as if the Bible was divinely inspired. Theistic rationalists and deists do not believe that Christianity is a blessed religion revealed from God, although they may accept a few things from the Bible, or hold it in respect as a great but flawed human book. Washington does not express that sentiment here.

He also subscribes to the idea, as implied by this selection's theme, that man is inherently evil and selfish ans sinful. That even the best products of human reason are a poor barrier to the tide of this inherent selfishness, without the word of God. This belief cannot be reconciled with theistic rationalism, deism, or any other form of rationalism. Only with Christianity.

Hercules Mulligan said...

If I may also respond to something that Jonathan said earlier that I think is incorrect:

I'm sorry, but "deeds not words" is not biblical. The Bible says, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

It's true that the Bible says this. But you have to be careful that you interpret the Bible in light of itself. See for instance 1 John 3:18:

"My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth."

So then, "deeds not words" is biblical.

Let us also interpret Washington in light of himself when it comes to this motto of his.

Washington was not saying, "I will do without saying" (because apparently that was not his practice; he did what was right, but he also said what he believed was right). His motto meant, "I will put more emphasis on my actions and not on my words." This was an antidote to even the appearance of hypocrisy, and Washington was a very honorable and honest man.

So, I don't think that this motto is unbiblical or that it disproves his belief in the Bible.

afeatheradrift said...

You might want to take a look at Founding Faith by Steven Waldman. His take is that the story is probably not reliable, but clearly Washington did pray. He was very much for tolerance and stopped a lot of anti-Catholic behavior among the troops of the Continental Army. Nice post.

Brad said...

While reading what everyone has contributed to this discussion, I can't help but bring up Jon Meacham's ideas from his book, "American Gospel." Meacham mentions what Benjamin Franklin called the "public" religion. I wonder if Washington's personal religious convictions fit with Meacham's thesis. Would it be fair of us to call Washington a "universalist" like the vast majority of those who subscribed to the "public religion?"

Your thoughts...

Hercules Mulligan said...

Thanks for your thoughts and invitation Brad. I must confess I am not familiar with Meacham's work, however.

Tell me if I am wrong: You seem to be inferring that Washington's private religious convictions were substituted with a "religion" more acceptable to the American populous, or one with which they were more comfortable (i. e., a biblical one)?

To come to such a conclusion is to convict Washington, and other Founders of hypocrisy. I might be able to find such behavior consistent with the character of men like Jefferson, or even Franklin, but not Washington. I see no good reason to challenge his integrity and his honesty. There is every indication in his own writings that Washington was a man of conviction who didn't compromise what he truly believed to please the voters. His presidential administration is solid proof of that.

Also, if the majority of the American people regarded the Bible, why didn't the majority of our Founders? How did our Founding Fathers gain any support or status? Were they ALL convincing hypocrites? It would be a miracle if the most astounding bunch of hypocrites in the world founded the greatest nation in the world. Just something to think about. ;)

Hercules Mulligan said...

OK, in case my first comment wasn't clear:

I was wondering if Brad was saying that Meacham claimed (using words from Franklin) that Washington gave the public appearance of Christianity, even though he really did not believe in it. Again, I think that such a claim would imply gross hypocrisy on Washington's part, which was altogether inconsistent with his character. And I should add that it often cost him a high price to maintain his convictions publicly, and risk odds with the public.

I don't know if I am misunderstanding Brad and John Meacham or not; please correct me if I am.

Jonathan said...

One central tenet to theistic rationalism is that it believes all religions are valid ways to God and that God comes to different peoples under different names.

As such they could talk -- sounding like Christians -- as though the Christian religion were true one minute and then turn around and talks as though some pagan religion were true. If they really did believe all of these competing religious systems were true, then it's not hypocrisy (thought I'd concede your point if you thought it were bad, heretical theology).

GW prayed to the pagan Indian Great Spirit God -- a God who unlike Allah, doesn't even claim to be the God of Abraham! -- by name; if he really didn't believe their "Great Spirit" were a valid God, then THAT'S hypocrisy.

GW often used names with which the addresses were comfortable with; the only time he said God was Jehovah was of course when addressing Jews. And when addressing his fellow Freemasons, he referred to God as The Great Architect of the Universe.

I'm certain if there were enough Muslims and GW could address them, he'd refer to God as Allah.

And re: the Natives you'll never see in his writings him saying he believes their religion false, Christianity true (how could he if he thought their Great Spirit was a valid way to God?) but rather it would be better for them to convert to civilize and better assimilate them.

Jonathan said...

The way that Jefferson and Adams, by the way, handled their religious problem was by keeping the most heterodox elements of their religious views to themselves, in their private letters. That's how they could be elected! It's a greatly under appreciated historical irony that for all of the hubbub over religion during their election -- and conceded that Adams had a friendlier view on integration of Church & State -- the two were virtually agreed in their personal religious sentiments.

The same mistake many folks made back then, folks make today; Jefferson as more "deistic" (or even perhaps "atheistic") than he actually was and Adams as more conventionally religious.

Adams I'd be willing to convict of hypocrisy because HE claimed to have been an adult-lifelong Unitarian, since 1750. And he could attack the Trinity as bitterly as Jefferson could. Yet, he issued a Trinitarian sounding Thanksgiving Prayer (one he latter regretted giving). Far more Trinitarian sounding than anything George Washington ever uttered privately or publicly.

Another way in which these key Founders threaded the needle between their heterodox religion and the orthodoxy of many in the masses is generic God speak -- statements that didn't contradict EITHER their heterodox views OR the views of the orthodox.

Washington said nice things about the Christian religion, invoked a warm intervening Providence, and kept his mouth shut on his religious specifics and let people think whatever they wanted. He never claimed to be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian (out of hundreds of letters only one exists where he even claims to be Christian), never spoke in orthodox Trinitarian language, so he never falsely claimed to be something he wasn't. If he let others have an impression that he was more orthodox than he really was, I see this as neither hypocrisy, nor any different than what J. Adams, Jefferson or Madison did.

No one wants to be labeled an "infidel" and that's exactly how the orthodox viewed the religion of the key Founders. It's like a gay public figure in the 1950s letting letting folks think he's a heterosexual bachelor without even "clarifying" his sexual orientation. They did indeed hide in a religious closet. That's one key reason probably why Washington was so reticent to discuss what he personally believed in and why Nelly Custis angrily told critics to buzz off.

Finally, the reason for the disconnect between their views and those of many in the masses is because Founding era republican ideas didn't come from the masses or orthodox Christianity, but from elite educated circles, who disproportionately rejected orthodox Christianity.

It's the same as today. The policy makers and politicians, though anyone can be elected, tend to be disproportionately lawyers and well educated, the "cultural elite."

This is a point I'd think Herc. would have to concede: Personally I think the first 4 Presidents rejected all of the tenets of orthodox Christianity; but EVEN if we assumed Madison and Washington were conventional Christians, there's no question J. Adams and T. Jefferson did. That's 2 of the first 4 Presidents holding these heterodox, heretical religious views. 50% of the Churches were not Unitarian as Jefferson and Adams were.

Add Ben Franklin to the mix (whose religious views were identical to Jefferson's and J. Adams' and who was also an acting governor of a major state -- PA) and you've got the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and a majority (3 out of 5) of the drafting bd. of the document.

Hence a disconnect between the elite in government and the masses or Churches that were supposed to rule the masses' consciences. We shouldn't get the impression that virtually all of the masses were pious Christians, however; one notable study has shown the overwhelming majority of citizens of the Founding era to be un-churched, more likely to be found in taverns on Saturday nights than in churches on Sunday mornings.

Jonathan said...

Finally -- a word on the document Herc. linked to, so I can't be accused of ignoring it.

GW rarely invoked revelation as authority (he often spoke in biblical allusion as all of them including, Jefferson, Franklin and Paine did back then, and probably most of us, even I, do today). That Herc. would have to drag out a document -- a draft that he never finished, and one that got torn up so that it only exists in fragments -- speaks to the fact that GW's exact views on revelation are hard to pin down because he didn't do a lot of talking about them.

That said, it IS consistent with theistic rationalism which views the Bible as a partially inspired holy book, a partially inspired "Word of God." Deism, on the other hand, categorically rejects all revelation.

Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, likewise spoke as though they really believed in PARTS of the Bible -- because they did.

Brad said...

Thanks for the comments, Herc. and Jonathan. By the way, Jonathan, do you have a reference to Washington's praying to a Native American "great spirit?" If so, I'd love to have it. Very interesting.

Herc. What Meacham was saying is that the Founding Fathers believed in a "public" religion," which was neutral in any argument of orthodoxy, and generally applied to any and all faith in a supreme being. Meacham states that the Founders were appealing to this "public religion" when they wrote the Dec. of Ind. as is evidenced by its language.

To be honest, I wasn't sure if it applied to Washington or not, which is why I brought it up. I think Jonathan has made some good points on this issue though. It would be hard to categorize Washington as a pious believer of orthodox Christianity.

With that said, I want to bring up something that might apply to the discussion. Just before the commencement of the American Revolution, the northern colonies were caught up in the millennial frenzy of the Great Awakening, which caused thousands of colonists to develop a general distrust for orthodox religion, but not for Christianity in general. Nicholas Guyatt discusses this at length in his new book, "Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1875." Guyatt also brings up the fact that scores of American colonists and British citizens developed a "healthy distaste" for organized religion, which was primarily the result of fallout from the English Civil War. Guyatt also claims that this "fallout" lasted well into the era of the American Revolution. He's also quick to point out, however, that this "fallout" did not ignite a general distrust in Christianity as a whole, but only in orthodoxy.

What do you think?

Hercules Mulligan said...

OK, I am getting a little confused about this definition of theistic rationalism.

Jonathan and I have wrangled over this and similar issues, and it always comes down to this new term theistic rationalism (which, from what I've gathered, is just one of the many terms used for something in between a deist and Christian).

In our past (and numerous) discussions, theistic rationalism, at its core, believes in God, believes that He interacts with the world, but that the laws of nature and man's reason are superior to any revelation whatsoever. That is what I mean when I say that revelation is, for all practical purposes, non-existent and irrelevant in the theistic rationalistic view.

Now he is saying that theistic rationalist believes all religions are equally valid. But all religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc) all rely on revelation (although religions like Christianity do not require a disposal of reason, but rather the use of it; but revelation of God trumps any so-called reason of man). All religions do not hold each other to be true. Islam requires the "jihad" of those who do not believe in it. Christianity does not allow those who profess it to compromise or adapt their beliefs to other religions, etc. etc. So how can theistic rationalists believe that reason is THE standard for measuring truth, and accept all religions as being valid? Where is the consistency in that definition?

Also, the claim that Washington believed that the animist religions of the Indians were as equally valid as Christianity is fallacious. I've addressed this in the end of my latest post on George Washington's faith.
And George Washington's addressing the Jews, using the word "Jehovah" to refer to God, does not mean that he thought that he was recognizing Judaism (i. e. rejection of Jesus as Messiah but still clinging to some of the Old Testament traditions) as equally valid as Christianity (that would be a logical contradiction, since you would have to believe that Jesus is and isn't the Messiah). Christians use the term "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" to refer to God, because that is His name. So Washington could still have been recognizing only Christianity as true, but addressing the Jews in their own terms.

Masonry in America, during the time of Washington, was really not a separate religion. It's language was Christian/trinitarian, until about the time of his death. His reference to the "Great Architect" is a true reference to God in the Christian sense, but speaking to a certain attribute of Him (His role as a Creator and Designer).

So none of these disprove his Christianity.

You said that you'll never see GW saying that the religion of the Native Indians was wrong. Then why did he encourage the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert the Indians??? Again, I would refer to the end of my above-mentioned post, where there are 3 excerpts from his own letters where he believes and supports the efforts of Christians to convert the Indians. He gave this explanation:

"So far as I am capable of judging, the principles upon which the society is founded and the rules laid down for its government, appear to be well calculated to promote so laudable and arduous an undertaking, and you will permit me to add that if an event so long and so earnestly desired as that of converting the Indians to Christianity and consequently to civilization, can be effected, the Society of Bethlehem bids fair to bear a very considerable part in it. I am, Reverend Sir, with sentiments of esteem, &c." (To John Ettwein, May 2, 1778)

Concerning referring to Adams and Jefferson, and comparing them to Washington, is like comparing apples to oranges. I think even Jefferson and Adams would agree with that. Washington must be defined by Washington, not by Adams or Jefferson.

I'm pressed for time, and I will address some of the specifics of other things later, but these are my immediate thoughts.

Jonathan said...

You said that you'll never see GW saying that the religion of the Native Indians was wrong. Then why did he encourage the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert the Indians???

I already answered this in the above post but it also relates to your misunderstanding of theistic rationalism when you write: "Now he is saying that theistic rationalist believes all religions are equally valid."

No. Not EQUALLY valid, but simply VALID ways to God. Think of religion as a mountain with God at the top. The theistic rationalists believed most or all religions were valid ways to the top but Christianity was the shortest way to get there. And that's because of the superiority of Jesus' moral teachings. The content of "sound religion" was not orthodox doctrines like original sin, the trinity, incarnation and atonement (in which they didn't believe) but rather the teaching of an overriding Providence and future state of rewards and punishments. Christianity was the best religion (in a comparative sense) NOT because of Christ's exclusive claim to God as the second person in the Trinity (again, things in which they didn't believe) but because of the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth's moral teachings.

The purpose of religion was to make men moral and hence self-governable.

And this is why George Washington could at once believe the Native American's religion a valid way to God and STILL prefer they convert to Christianity because, as his very words you reproduce state, it made them more "civilized" and better assimilated them. Both religions were valid with Christianity better and preferable for its utilitarian effects. Not a word in what you reproduced that shows Washington thought the Native's religion false, Christianity true, and Indians should convert because their souls hung in the balance.

Re GW's relation to Adams, Jefferson and the other Founders. If it can be shown that he talked like them and his theological beliefs and God talk were consistent with theirs, it demonstrates that they likely believed in the same theological system. Peter Lillback does the same thing in his book where compares GW's God talk to Thomas Paine's and then to some orthodox clergymen's to show that Washington actually talked more like the orthodox clergy as opposed to Paine. What he OUGHT to have done is compare Washington's God talk to Jefferson's, J. Adams', Franklin's and Madison's and he would see that Washington's God-speak was closet to THEIRS, not Paine's or the orthodox clergymen's.

For instance, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, all three as President systematically spoke of God as "The Great Spirit" when addressing Native Americans suggesting this pagan Deity was the same God they (all religions) worshipped. See my next post for the primary sources Brad asked for.

Jonathan said...

Here are the two times Washington spoke as though the Native American's "Great Spirit" was the same God everyone worshipped. First, where he actually prays to the Great Spirit: "I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great spirit to preserve them."

And second: "I now sincerely wish you a good Journey and hope you may find your [families and] Brothers well on your Return, and that [the Great Spirit above] may long preserve your Nations in peace with each other and with the United States."

The reason why that's in parenthesis is because one of his speech writers prepared the address using the generic term "God" and Washington purposefully crossed that out and wrote in "the Great Spirit above."

If you want to know a neat little trick that Herc. probably knows about. GW's entire writings are collected here with a search engine. Just hit the search button, type in the phrase you want like "the great spirit" and the results pop up.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I don't have time to comment much now, but my quotation from Washington earlier (about the "blessed religion REVEALED in the word OF GOD") has not been dealt with. I don't think it can be reconciled with Jonathan's definition (which I thank him for; I think I have a clearer understanding of how it works) of theistic rationalism.

Brian Tubbs said...

Hello everyone. Good article, Brad. Great discussion.

Brad, I agree with your main point in the article. The painting itself is based on a legendary episode, but there's still a CORE truth to the painting - namely the principle that Washington prayed. I don't see how ANYONE can question the fact that George Washington prayed. The evidence that Washington was a man of prayer is overwhelming. Who cares if he knelt or stood????

I disagree with you and jonathan, however, that Washington wasn't an orthodox Christian. I also disagree with Joseph Ellis on this. Ellis got Washington's faith completely wrong in "His Excellency," by focusing on only PART of the evidence.

A much better and MUCH, MUCH more comprehensive treatment of George Washington's faith can be found in Peter Lillback's "George Washington's Sacred Fire." I dare anyone who questions Washington's Christianity to read that book with an open mind.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for chiming in Brian. I would also suggest those who are interested in countering the side that argues GW was an orthodox Christian to tackle Lillback's book (though at 1200 pages I'd imagine the overwhelming majority of folks who buy it don't finish it). If you do a google search, you'll see that I am probably the only source on the Internet that is reading and responding to it very carefully.

He does a great job digging into the primary sources and showing Washington wasn't a Deist as strictly defined. But he really doesn't convince me that GW was an orthodox Christian, because quite frankly, the historical record leaves a lot of doubt. His explanations on communion and GW's avoidance of Jesus' name I found especially unconvincing; I found his arguments in those sections to be very lawyer-like, defending GW from a charge of heresy in a Johnnie Cochranesq. manner.

On another day I'll tell you guys a story about how I was almost invited to debate Dr. Lillback at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia until they got a far more distinguished and qualified scholar -- Dr. Peter Henriques -- to argue for that side.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I think that Brian Tubbs is right in saying that there is evidence for Washington's Christianity. The quote I presented earlier, as I have stated before, does not align with theistic rationalism. GW is not just saying that Christianity is true; he is saying that the Bible is the revealed (or inspired) word OF GOD. This quote is affirmative evidence that Washington was a Christian, whereas the only evidence that has hence far been shown to demonstrate his supposed theistic rationalism has been circumstantial and inconclusive, although I do not mean to say that this hasn't been a thought-provoking discussion.

Brian Tubbs said...

Thanks, Hercules. And, Jonathan, I commend you for engaging Lillback's work.

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Aaron. I know that it is not provable to say that Washington prayed at Valley Forge. I do know this he was a mason and masons are taught to pray before any great undertaking you should first invoke the aid of God. So I do think he prayed.

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Anonymous said...

"Family history records have proven that the Potts family did not move to the Valley Forge area until 1800"
What family history did you read? The Potts family WAS Valley Forge and were there as of 1757... http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/youasked/010.htm

Anonymous said...

And the house at Valley Forge that became the headquarters of Washington was the home of Issac, who was the son of the Iron Master John Potts.

M.Potts said...

You may want to check your Potts history.
http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/youasked/010.htm

Elad2008 said...

Very interesting discussion which leaves me sensing that many observations are, to an important extent, self projections, because we all devoutly want GW to have thought they way we think.

Doug Cutler said...

Just because Washington did not partake of the communion services dose not mean he was not religious or spiritual! Some believe the sacrament is just for the anointed. Partaking for the masses has become acceptable and not correct!

As mentioned. Washington had his pride about not being seen on his knees. So he went far off where no one was supposed see him that way.

The main point is that he was spiritual more than dogma of any one deity. As I am also non denominational. T believe God is more concerned about how you are, more than what religion you belong to! "Those that do right naturally are a law/religion unto themselves." Or similar to that!

theoderic said...

Researching my own family I came across an e history of the daughters of the American Revolution edition where my ancestor Almira Foster retold stories her father Abel Foster shared with her siblings by the kitchen fire. These stories included the confusion and excitement of April 19th, 1775, her boyish uncle Benjamin Wood lost at Bunker Hill and the March to Virgina. The recollection also mentions the privations at Valley Forge, shaking the great Generai Washington's hand and hearing him pray many times at Valley Forge.

Abel Foster was a minute man, who also fought at Saratoga and eventually became a scout for Washington.