When George Washington died in 1799, partisan infighting and international crises threatened the survival of the American experiment. Many Americans believed in Washington’s unique ability to unite the country, and his death exacerbated national uncertainties. Enter Mason Locke Weems, whose contributions to Washington mythmaking dwarf those of any individual then or since. As national yearning for Washington increased after his passing, Weems authored The Life of George Washington, capitalizing on the current cultural and financial opportunity. While future scholars would devote volumes to Washington’s life, Weems required a mere two hundred and forty-four pages to communicate his essential stories. He did not write a historical biography. Rather, Weems celebrated Washington’s most admired virtues through a series of instructive lessons. Many of the tales he included, such as the fabled cherry tree episode, are fiction. Weems thrived in the space between evangelist and huckster, between historian and fabulist.
One of the book’s most famous excerpts remains Washington’s prayer during the 1777-1778 Valley Forge winter encampment, which Weems wrote as an allegorical defense of revolutionary-era values. Weems repeatedly referred to his source for the story, Isaac Potts, as “Friend Potts” to highlight his religious affiliation with the Society of Friends, or Quakers. According to Weems, Potts passed through the woods and spied “the commander in chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer.” He observed Washington until the general concluded his devotions, at which point Potts returned home to report the encounter to his wife. He reminded her of his Quaker vow to pacifism, declaring, “I always thought that the sword and the gospel were utterly inconsistent. But George Washington has this day convinced me of my mistake.” The General’s reverence converted Potts to the American cause, now certain that “Washington will yet prevail” and “work out a great salvation for America.” Weems designed the prayer legend to remind his audience that national obligations superseded religious differences.
Thus, published in 1804, the prayer at Valley Forge entered the lexicon. Fresh memories of the revolutionary civil war, the loss of the nation’s foremost leader, and intensifying political discord all meant the story resonated with Weems’s readers. And yet, that lesson of national unity, intended to bind Americans of differing religious backgrounds together, has been overlooked or ignored in many interpretations of the prayer story. More recently in the twentieth century, politicians and religious leaders have used the tableau to celebrate Washington as a pious patriot. Such interpretations often disregard the tale’s dubious origins and forget that as times have changed so has the meaning of the prayer myth. Those that neglect changing contexts can misread the prayer’s valuable lessons. If we think beyond the prayer’s ubiquitous reproductions, and into the revolutionary times in which its characters lived, we can rediscover precepts of one of the country’s most enduring parables.
George Washington’s respect for religious tolerance helped inspire Weems’s famous legend. Washington repeatedly defended religious cooperation in both writings and practice (although the courage and effectiveness of these stances varied throughout his course of public life). Mount Vernon Research Historian Mary V. Thompson argues that Washington customarily practiced as an Anglican Christian who maintained latitudinarian sentiments. Eighteenth-century latitudinarians “stressed” that Christians must transcend “doctrinal differences” which historically divided Protestant denominations. Thompson situated Washington among a group of believers who preached harmony and abhorred zealotry. By inspiring the Quaker Isaac Potts to join in common cause, Weems captured that spirit of religious cooperation and national unity. Washington hoped that his infant nation, which had been midwifed by prevailing Enlightenment values, would create a society that respected religious pluralism. In 1792 he wrote,
Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind those which are caused by a difference of sentiment in Religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened & liberal policy which has marked the present age would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of Society.
Weems’s audience could recall the role Quakers played in the struggle for independence. Bound by pacifist doctrine, cultural and economic connections to the Crown, or a combination of these and other factors, many Quaker families remained neutral in the conflict. The “if-you’re-not-with-us-you-must-be-against-us” mentality meant the revolutionaries harbored little sympathy for neutrals and dissenters. As war consumed southeast Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1778, frequent encounters between revolutionaries and Quakers did not improve these bitter relationships. To celebrate the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, for example, maddened Patriots smashed windows of Philadelphia Quakers leaving a trail of broken glass to honor the progress of liberty. Continental soldiers forcibly converted tranquil, sunlit meetinghouses into dark, musty hospitals and jails for wounded soldiers and prisoners. And at gunpoint, revolutionaries pressed unwilling Quakers into military activities in service of the American war effort. During the Valley Forge encampment of the prayer legend, area Quakers who dared refuse aid to the Continental Army only triggered more scorn and suspicion.
Distrust bred suppression. In 1777, even the latitudinarian Washington moved swiftly to curtail Quaker speech and assembly, cautioning his officers that “the unfriendly Quakers and others notoriously disaffected to the cause of American Liberty do not escape your vigilance.” Throughout the Valley Forge encampment, Washington’s struggles with the Society of Friends multiplied.That spring, he ordered the Pennsylvania militia to intercept Quakers travelling to Philadelphia and even permitted soldiers to seize Quaker horses, concerned that the Friends were scheming with “the most pernicious tendency.” Hostile revolutionaries under order from the commander in chief interrupted the free passage of area Friends, long accustomed to selling their crops in Philadelphia and practicing their pacifist creed. Weems envisioned the prayer as an overture to reluctant Quakers, and yet the General’s actions during that fateful winter are a more akin to a heart-hardened Pharaoh than a righteous deliverer.
Other Continentals echoed Washington’s frustrations with the Pennsylvania Friends. Nathanael Greene, himself a practicing member of the Society of Friends in his home state of Rhode Island, had no patience for these Pennsylvania cousins who shirked their service to the Patriot war effort. “The villinous Quakers are employd upon every quarter to serve the enemy,” he told his wife, “Some of them are confind and more deserve it.” James Varnum, Greene’s fellow Rhode Islander who occupied the home of a Quaker family for months during the Valley Forge encampment, compared southeastern Pennsylvania to a “heathenish land” and a “Tory labyrinth.” Officers’ attitudes also prevailed among the rank and file. Valley Forge historians have argued that Quakers became “particular targets” for the “generalized scorn” that prevailed among the troops. From 1777 to 1778, no religious group suffered as much persecution at the hands of the Patriot war effort as Pennsylvania’s Quakers. They endured widespread abuses and disparagements that lingered in the memory of Weems’s readership.
Quaker repression was not merely a product of Washington’s army but also of the Continental Congress and their arbitrary applications of justice. In late August 1777, as the Crown Forces threatened Philadelphia, a fearful congress moved to jail dissidents they believed might harbor British sympathies. On the 28th they approved resolves recommending that individual states should be granted the right to “apprehend and secure all persons . . . who have . . . evidenced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” These resolves exclusively mentioned only one group of Patriot enemies: “the people called Quakers.” By the end of the month forty-one individuals in Pennsylvania, mostly Friends, had been arrested. State officials later imprisoned twenty-six of them without a hearing. By the time the ordeal ended eight months later, twenty-two had been exiled to Staunton, Virginia, as “enemies” of the cause. Congress’s refusal to tolerate any doubts about their righteousness encouraged these acts of rank-bigotry. That Weems and his readers shared knowledge of these kinds of episodes informed the way those audiences understood the prayer legend.
Revolutionaries had considered Quakers duplicitous, irredeemable obstacles to American independence, “wolves in sheep’s cloathing.” But when Isaac Potts declared his allegiance to the Patriot camp, Weems argued even the “deceitful” Quaker could learn the error of their ways. The story also praised Washington’s ability to reach across denominational boundaries and unite Americans as much as it praised his personal piety. In the context of the early republic, moreover, with sectional and political strife threatening the young nation’s future, that message of religious tolerance was perhaps more meaningful to readers. Nineteenth-century retellings of the prayer story suggest that this lesson of national unity long resonated. Decades later, hardly a printed version of the prayer legend excluded the anecdote of the pacifist Quaker turned patriot. Some writers, such as Benson Lossing, altered Potts’s pre-prayer political identity by claiming Potts was not merely a neutral Quaker but rather an avowed Tory, strengthening Washington’s claim to unifier-in-chief even further.
Later images of Washington at prayer also depict Potts observing Washington’s devotions. Lambert Sachs’s George Washington at Prayer at Valley Forge (1854) includes a curious Quaker looking on, as does the most famous nineteenth-century rendition, Henry Brueckner’s The Prayer at Valley Forge (1866). In Brueckner’s interpretation, despite the icy wind and snow, Potts watched Washington from behind a gnarled, leafless tree. Artists, writers, orators, and storytellers deliberately included Potts in their retellings, an enduring symbol of the deep divisions of the revolutionary civil war. In other words, nineteenth-century prayer interpretations repeatedly reminded their audience that religious dissenters still belonged within the body politic. National obligations exceeded such narrow, domestic walls.
More recently, however, the prayer has been exploited in the fight to render George Washington an evangelical leader. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, artists began excluding Potts from the scene altogether, and few twentieth century references to the prayer included Potts’s conversion, whether in print, artwork, or oratory. Rather, these traditionalist interpretations often cast the vignette as a celebration of Washington’s prayerful leadership. In 1967, for instance, former Secretary of the Army and cold warrior Wilber M. Brucker, urging his country to stay the course in Vietnam, employed the prayer. “[Washington] didn’t cringe during eight long years of warfare,” he declared, “Instead of listening to impatient counsel of defeat, America should tighten its belt and resolutely turn again to the grim task of destroying Communist aggression.” Perhaps no politician more effectively deployed the prayer to further their political goals than President Ronald Reagan. Extoling the values of religious conservatism, a pillar of the Reagan Revolution, the president called the tableau “the most sublime picture in American history.” At the 1982 National Day of Prayer he preached, “That image personifies a people who know that it’s not enough to depend on our own courage and goodness; we must also seek help from God, our Father and Preserver.” Weems’s legend encouraged his readership to shed their parochially pious sentiments for the national good. Since his time, however, subsequent cultural artificers with different priorities have re-suited the prayer story to meet their present, often political, needs. Such images of Washington often tell us more about the times in which they were created than the man himself.
Traditionalists who recast the prayer legend as an example of Washington’s evangelism have compromised Weems original message in an effort to strengthen ahistorical connections between the founding of the United States and religious values. In the process, the tableau has become a part of American scripture that testifies to the destined progress of this one nation, under God. Not surprisingly, the parallels between the prayer at Valley Forge and the account of Jesus in Gethsemane or Moses at the burning bush inspired a host of comparisons. Ironically, while these scenes may appear visually appropriate, symbolically and culturally, Weems’s original vignette is more akin to the Gospel of Luke. For much like the Good Samaritan, a righteous individual from a historically vilified group, Potts established that Quakers too could behave virtuously. And without the appropriate revolutionary context such lessons can be lost. The lesson of Potts’s political awakening and bridging religious difference would have resonated throughout the nation Washington helped build, a nation purportedly committed to religious liberty for all.
Phillip Levy, George Washington Written Upon the Land: Nature, Myth, Memory, and Landscape (West Virginia University Press, 2015), 136-39; François Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 145; Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 41, 251.
Mason Locke Weems, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1817; Internet Archive edition, archive.org/details/lifeofgeorge washweem), 198-199.
This essay does not interrogate the “accuracy” of the prayer in an attempt to focus on the context in which Mason Locke Weems first crafted the story. However, understanding the debate about its veracity might be of value to situate the legend in changing times.
Mason Weems’s source for the prayer story was Isaac Potts, who owned the millhouse that General Washington, his military staff, and domestics occupied during the Valley Forge encampment. However, Isaac Potts spent the winter of 1777-1778 around Pottstown, Pennsylvania, not Valley Forge. Potts may have visited his properties at Valley Forge during the winter, and could have witnessed the scene as described by Weems. However, Weems then misidentified Potts’s wife as Sarah Evans (his second wife) when he would have reported any such prayer to Martha Boulton (his first wife). Most significantly, there is no contemporary evidence that the prayer took place. Likewise, there is no evidence Isaac Potts abandoned his pacifism to support the Patriot war effort. See Daniel A. Graham, Isaac Potts (1750-1803) of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and the Valley Forge “Washington at Prayer” Legend: A Biographical Sketch, (2000), Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collections, 3-7, 9.
Debating the accuracy of the prayer legend, too, has a long past. In the mid-nineteenth century a Valley Forge local named Henry Woodman published a series of letters in the Doylestown Intelligencer, one of which expressed skepticism about the truth of the prayer legend. Considering the amount of hearsay, Woodman was “not prepared to say” whether the story was true. See Henry Woodman, The History of Valley Forge: With a Biography of the Author and the Author’s Father who was a Soldier with Washington at Valley Forge during the Winters of 1777 and 1778, ed. the Woodman Family (Oaks, Pennsylvania: John U. Francis, Sr., 1922); Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/record/100556090, accessed May 8, 2018, 65; Lorett Treese, Valley Forge: The Making and Remaking of a National Symbol (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 12-13.
The first concerted attempts to debunk the prayer legend can be found in the first decades of the twentieth century, when the newspapers such as The Washington Post (1877-1922) and The New York Times ran articles questioning the history of the legend. In 1926, in his book on Washington iconography, William E. Woodward called the image “grotesque.” According to Valley Forge historian Lorret Treese, Valley Forge Park commissioners rejected a statue of the prayer in 1918, citing the opinion of the chief of the manuscript division of the Library of Congress who wrote “the prayer story . . . cheapens Valley Forge, and tends to destroy the atmosphere of the place when mere tradition is monumented with all the solemnity of established fact.” See “Unveiling of Tablet: “Washington at Prayer” Now at New York Subtreasury,” The Washington Post, February 23, 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 5; “To Issue Valley Forge Stamp Of Washington at Prayer” New York Times, May 4, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 2; “Doubts Washington Kneeling In Prayer at Valley Forge”, New York Times, October 28, 1932, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 42; William E. Woodward, George Washington: The Image and the Man (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1926); Internet Archive edition, archive.org/details/ georgewashington009269mbp, accessed June 7, 2018, 342-43; Treese, Valley Forge: The Making and Remaking, 168-69.
Mid-twentieth scholars added to the skepticism. In 1968, for instance, Thomas Bailey thought the story no better than a propaganda piece intended to “indoctrinate” American children. Thomas A. Bailey, “The Mythmakers of American History,” Journal of American History 55, no. 1 (June 1968): 5-21; Marshall W. Fishwick, American Heroes: Myth and Reality (Washington: Public Affairs Press, 1954), Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust. org/Record/000331181, accessed June 3, 2018, 53.
More recent historians as well have not shied away from confronting the factual accuracy of the prayer legend. See Jon Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, revised 2016), 171-72 ; Mary V. Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 91; Karal Ann Marling, George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture 1876-1986 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 1-2; Edward G. Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory (New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 2011), 83-9.
Recent historians have differed about the date in which the prayer at Valley Forge first appeared in print. In 1929, Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel finished her brother Paul Leicester Ford’s endeavor to gather the papers of Mason Locke Weems thereto known. Their collective research compilation remains the most thorough work on Weems, and they dated the first appearance of the story to March 12, 1804 as an article in the Washington Federalist. See Mason Locke Weems His Works and Ways in Three Volumes: A Bibliography left Unfinished by Paul Leicester Ford, ed. Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel, vol. 1 (New York: 1929), vii, 31.
Enlightenment values with respect to religious tolerance varied widely over the course of that era. Prominent enlightenment thinkers such Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, or Jean Jacques Rousseau maintained different ideas about religious tolerance, religious cooperation, and religious liberty. The specific values that motivated founders like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison, however, were a set of radically secular precepts grounded in the idea that a nation that proselytizes least governs best. For Washington, and many of the founders ensconced in the New World, the tragic histories of Old World religious wars were cautionary tales about the dangers of religious coercion. These ideas encouraged the Constitution’s framers to build walls between the church and the state, such as the prohibition on religious tests for public office or the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”). Moreover, Washington’s support for religious tolerance radiated through his letters to Jewish congregations, treaties with Muslim nations, and his regular attendance in varied Christian houses of worship. See Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2018), 52-4; Noah Feldman, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President (New York: Random House, 2017), 9-14; Thompson, “In the Hands of a Good Providence,”4-5, 165-66; George Washington to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0132; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792 – 15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 246–247; Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life(New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 132, 569, 611.
“Powers to Officers to Collect Clothing, etc.,” The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, ed. John Fitzpatrick, vol. 9, August 1, 1777–November 3, 1777 (Washington: 1934); Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000366819, accessed June 10, 2018, 318; Washington to John Lacey, Jr., March 20 1778, Washington Writings11: 114; Joseph Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 75.
Nathanael Greene to Catherine Greene, September 14, 1777, The Papers of Nathanael Greene, eds. Richard K. Showman, Robert E. McCarthy, and Margaret Cobb, vol. 2 1 January 1777–16 October 1778 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 163; James Varnum to Nathan Miller, March 7, 1778, John Reed Collection, Valley Forge National Historical Park Archives; Wayne K. Bodle and Jacqueline Thibaut, The Valley Forge Historical Research Project, vol. 1, The Vortex of Small Fortunes: The Continental Army at Valley Forge, 1778-1778 (Valley Forge: United States Department of the Interior National Park Service, 1980), 158.
Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. 8 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/00677112, accessed August 28, 2018, 694-95; Letters of the Delegates to Congress, Paul Smith, ed., vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1981), Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000143048, accessed August 24, 2018, 572-74; Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), 216.
John Lansing to Richard Varick, April 10, 1777, digital image, Richard Varick Papers, 1743-1871 (bulk 1775-1830), Series I: Correspondence, 1775-1830, Subseries I: Letters received, nyhs_rvp_b-02_f-17_038-02.jpg29009, New-York Historical Society; for versions of the prayer legend in which Potts is described as a Tory, see Benson J. Lossing, Life of Washington: A Biography Personal, Military, and Political, vol. 2 of 3 (New York: Virtue and Company, 1860), Google Books, books.google.com/books/about/Life_of_ Washington.html?id= Q2oLAQAAIAAJ, accessed May 8, 2018, 602-03; E.C. McGuire, Religious Opinions and Character of Washington (New York: Harper and Bros., 1836), Hathi Trust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000366318, accessed June 3, 2018, 158-160; Theodore W. J. Wylie, Washington a Christian: A Discourse Preached Feb. 23, 1862, in the First Reformed Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, by the Pastor (Philadelphia: William S. and Alfred Martien, 1862), Hathitrust edition, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/ 009609559, accessed June 3, 2018, 28-29.
Mark Edward Thistlethwaite, “The Image of George Washington: Studies in Mid-Nineteenth Century History Painting,” Phd. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1977, 99-100; Although the Continental Army remained encamped at Valley Forge until June 19, 1778, over decades Americans began to associate Valley Forge with harsh winter conditions. Henry Brueckner was one of the first artists to set the scene as a snowscape, and also took the liberty of other additions that have become commonplace in prayer iconography, such as a horse tied to a tree, soldiers huddled around a campfire, and a hut.
Ironically, Reagan’s event for the 1982 National Day of Prayer (where he prominently referenced the prayer in his address) included a small, meaningful, though likely coincidental homage to the original moral of the Valley Forge legend. As he strode to the podium to deliver his speech, the President exchanged pleasantries with Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic faith leaders. Uniting these different religious figures behind the Presidential seal illustrated a form of religious diversity that Weems and Washington argued was an essential part of the national character. See “Remarks at a White House Ceremony in Observance of National Day of Prayer,” May 6, 1982, www.reaganlibrary.gov/ research/speeches/50682c, accessed March 18, 2018.Brucker quoted in Treese, Valley Forge: The Making and Remaking, 168-69. Reagan also used the image in his second inaugural address; see Ronald Reagan, “Second Inaugural Address,” delivered January 21, 1985, The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy (New Haven: The Avalon Project, 1996), avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/reagan2.asp.