Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas at Valley Forge

Did George Washington pray at Valley Forge? A week before Christmas, on December 19, he camped there with his troops to tough out the winter. According to the famous legend perpetrated by his first biographer Mason Locke Weems (an Episcopal minister):

“In the winter of '77, while Washington, with the American army, lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old friend, of the respectable family and name of Potts, if I mistake not, had occasion to pass through the woods near headquarters. Treading in his way along the venerable grove, suddenly he heard the sound of a human voice, which, as he advanced, increased on his ear; and at length became like the voice of one speaking much in earnest. As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold, in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer.”

Why the American commander would have been kneeling on the cold, snowy forest floor is truly mysterious, since Washington preferred to stand at prayer, even when warm and dry inside an Anglican church, where bending the knee is expected. Parson Weems, who invented the episode of chopping down the cherry tree along with other “curious anecdotes” intended to clothe the Virginian’s memory in an aura of piety, never let the facts get in the way of good story.

Still, the fable of Washington at prayer would work its way into American folklore. It became the subject of a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration in 1935, and was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1977, despite the fact that Washington was not particularly devout or conventionally religious.

He purposely avoided going to church when he knew communion would be served. He never used the Christian terms Lord, Redeemer, Christ or Saviour in his pronouncements on faith, preferring more naturalistic and neutral terms like “Providence.” On his deathbed, he called for no priests, psalms or other spiritual comforts. Bishop William White, frequently a guest at Mount Vernon, said he never heard Washington utter any remark that would lead him to believe our first president was a believer in “the Christian revelation.”

In his own way, George Washington was a man of the strongest possible convictions and highest principles—just not “born again” or doctrinally correct. As usual, fact is more interesting than fiction. And the best possible tribute we can pay our Founding Fathers is to appreciate the religious complexity that has characterized our nation from its very beginning.

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