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.