December anniversaries:

Behind Washington's prayer at Valley Forge

By Chuck Springston
A preacher's story contributed to Washington lore.
A preacher's story contributed to Washington lore.
Image: StudyHall.Rocks
It is one of American history’s most famous events: The Continental Army’s winter at Valley Forge. And it is commemorated in one of the nation’s most famous paintings: The Prayer at Valley Forge.

     The scene George Washington on bended knee praying in the snow during a dark time for the Revolution is a defining image in Washington lore—a picture of Valley Forge that many scholars say is more mythology than history. 
      In the traditional version of the prayer story, Pennsylvania Quaker Isaac Potts, who owned a home in Valley Forge, was riding his horse through the woods in the winter of 1777-78. There were periods of bitter cold and heavy snow, but it was not the coldest winter of the Revolution. Two severe winters were still to come.
       The Continental Army had reached Valley Forge on Dec. 19 and would stay until June 19. The army’s camp wasn’t far from Philadelphia, where the British were spending the winter after forcing the Continental Congress to evacuate. Supply shortages meant that many American soldiers, although not all, were poorly clothed and shoeless. Food supplies were low, but foraging helped.
       Washington had established his headquarters at the house Potts owned. When he arrived at Valley Forge, the house was being rented to a woman who was a relative of Potts, but she moved in with another family to make way for the general and his staff, who rented the house from her. 

       Potts enters the scene
       As Potts continued his ride, the story goes, he came across the Army’s camp. In the woods nearby, Potts “heard a plaintive sound as of a man at prayer,” he is quoted as saying years later to a friend, the Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden. As recorded by Snowden, “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.”
       Potts then went home and told his wife what he saw. “She also was astonished. We thought it was the cause of God, & America could prevail.”
       The first publication of the Potts story was in a book on the life of Washington written by the Rev. Mason Locke Weems, generally known as Parson Weems (1759-1825). The book was printed in several editions beginning in 1800. New anecdotes were added in successive editions. The Valley Forge prayer first showed up in the 1808 edition, notes Bryn Mawr College archivist Lorett Treese in her book Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol (1995, Penn State University Press).
       Weems is the inventor of the story about Washington chopping down the cherry and confessing to his father, “I cannot tell a lie.”
       The Weems and Snowden versions have a few differences but are essentially the same tale. Snowden, who was born in 1770 and died 1851, told his story in “Diary and Remembrances," which covers his life to 1846.
       Snowden identifies the prayer watcher as John Potts, the name of one of Isaac’s brothers, but he may have meant to write “Isaac,” say those willing to give the story credence. Weems and Snowden both give the wife’s name as Sarah. But Isaac’s wife in 1777 was named Martha. After she died, he married Sarah in 1803 (roughly three years after Washington’s death). Another problem with the story is that Isaac Potts wasn’t living at Valley Forge during the encampment, Treese says in her book. He was in Pottsgrove, Pa., between 1774 and 1782.
       Then there is this question: If Washington left the camp to pray in solitude, why was he praying so loudly that every word could be heard a good distance away?

       In memory of the prayer
       In 1918, believers in the prayer story lobbied the Valley Forge Park Commission—created  in 1893 to operate the site when it was a state park—for a monument on the spot where Washington supposedly was seen kneeling in prayer. The commission wasn’t keen on the idea.
       It  looked at “ thousands of pages” of correspondence, diaries and manuscripts from Washington, his staff, soldiers ranking from general to private, and members of a congressional committee that visited the camp, according to an article in a 1945 publication of the Valley Forge Historical Society. The commission scoured the Library of Congress and other places with Revolutionary War records and then issued a report stating that "in none of these were found a single paragraph that will substantiate the tradition of the 'Prayer at Valley Forge.'"
       A government commission, however, can’t kill a legend. A tour guide in the 1920s and ’30s would show the “exact spot” where Washington knelt in prayer, according to the Historic Valley Forge website of the Independence Hall Association.
       Meanwhile, artists’ renditions of the prayerful Washington, which Treese says began in the mid-1800s, have continued to the present day. One of the most popular is The Prayer at Valley Forge, painted by Arnold Friberg in 1975.
       The original was appraised at $12 million, according to Friberg Fine Art Inc. in Salt Lake City. Friberg died in 2010.
       For many people, that painting symbolizes the blending of faith with patriotic duty and the power of prayer to provide strength in times of distress. To question the accuracy of Friberg's work is not to question those sentiments. Just realize that it is a painting, not a photograph.   

       The real Washington and the real Valley Forge
       There is strong evidence that Washington believed in God, even though his views do not fit conveniently into a particular theology.
       The most common word used by Washington in references to a deity is “Providence,” says David L. Holmes, professor emeritus of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, in his book “The Religion of the Founding Fathers” (2003, Ashlawn-Highland; The Clements Library, University of Michigan).
       Washington believed “that the almost miraculous victory of the colonists as well as the successful creation of the new republic stemmed from the invisible workings of Providence,” Holmes writes. “He seemed to view Providence as the actions of a benevolent, prescient, all-powerful God who created life and guided its development, but who remained somewhat distant and impersonal.”
       A focus on Washington’s religion or his troops’ suffering misses the broader importance of Valley Forge during the Revolution, historian Mary Stockwell explains in an essay on Mount Vernon’s website
       “Images of bloody footprints in the snow, soldiers huddled around lonely campfires and Washington on his knees, praying that his army might survive,” come to mind when people hear the words Valley Forge, Stockwell writes. “But truer images of the place would show General Washington using the time between December 1777 and June 1778 to train his men and to fight to maintain his position as the head of the Continental Army” against the efforts of opponents trying to unseat him.
        Fortunately for us, Washington was successful on both counts.      

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