One of the legends or myths of Valley Forge is that Washington prayed for his country here. We do not say that he did not pray at Valley Forge (he assuredly did), there simply is an open question as to how he did so and if he actually was witnessed in prayer. Although this article has been added with a date of January 17, 1778, the actual day is unknown. There are a number of artists who represent Washington kneeling in prayer, some in the snow, some in the grass of a glade in the woods. There are even separate versions of the story. There was a guide in the 1920’s and 1930’s who would give tours and show the “exact spot upon which the General kneeled in prayer.” Washington offered a day of thanksgiving and supplication to his Maker for all of the troops on numerous occasions throughout the entirety of the
Prayer of Valley Forge May Be Legend or Tradition or a Fact, Yet It Remains Symbol of Faith
by Gilbert Starling Jones
From The Picket Post, Published by the Valley Forge Historical Society, April, 1945, No. 9
‘Tis Pride with these old men
To tell what they have seen.
‘Twill be Pride, when we are old,
To say that in our youth
We heard the tales they told
And looked on them in their truth.
Few incidents in the life and actions of Washington, while he was Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces battling for The Independence of the American Colonies have been more controversial or more often related than the “Prayer of Valley Forge.” Did he, or did he not, pray at the Winter Encampment is quite as familiar to readers of historical tomes touching the American Revolution as “to be or not to be” is to the average man who may or may not know further about the Bard of Avon.
No attempt is made, presently, by this compiler to establish documentary proof that Washington was seen at Valley Forge in supplication upon the Divine Will in the need of Almighty direction. The purpose, more especially, is to direct the readers’ thoughts into a channel whereby to essay the relations of an episode, be it traditional or fact, that may furnish a key to the inner depths of the character of the great and lonely man at Valley Forge — a character so needed in today’s world.
With such purpose it seems fitting to recount the Potts version of the Encampment prayer, to offer a vastly different and little known account as found in the detailed story by an Ex-Pension Agent, and to present some evidences of the great leader’s prayerful attitude as revealed by the records. Reference to Potts version first appeared in 1816, the 17th Edition of the “Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes” by the Rev. Mason L. Weems, formerly rector of Mount Vernon Parish.
Henry Woodman in his “History of Valley Forge,” 1850, has this to say; “I have heard it said, that Washington used often to retire to solitary places, and on one of these occasions he was discovered by Isaac Potts engaged in vocal prayer. This circumstance is noticed by Weems with some comments. How far this account is correct I am not prepared to say. But I have heard the circumstances related and the spot was pointed out to me several years before I saw the account published.” It should be noted that Woodman was born in the old camp ground 1795. He states that during his youth his father, a veteran of the Revolution and of Valley Forge, frequently walked over the camp site with the son, relating incidents of camp life and pointing out locations.
In 1918, the Valley Forge Park Commission refused a request by a patriotic organization for permission to erect a monument or marker on the spot where it was claimed Washington was seen kneeling in prayer. The Commission’s report reviewed its examination of the thousands of pages of correspondence and diaries of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff; generals of divisions and brigades; officers and privates of regiments; the Congressional Committee who were at the camp; manuscripts in the Library of Congress and other institutions where Revolutionary matter is preserved. It concluded by observing “in none of these were found a single paragraph that will substantiate the tradition of the ‘Prayer at Valley Forge.'”
Snowden’s Diary Gives Data
The nearest to an authentication of the Potts story of Washington’s prayer in the woods seems to be supplied by the “Diary and Remembrances” of the Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, an ordained Presbyterian minister, graduate of Princeton with a degree from Dickinson College. The original is owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Mr. Snowden was born in Philadelphia January 17, 1770 and died November 12, 1851. His writings cover a period from youth to 1846. In his records may be found these observations, in Mr. Snowden’s own handwriting:
“I knew personally the celebrated Quaker Potts who saw Gen’l Washington alone in the woods at prayer. I got it from himself, myself. Weems mentioned it in his history of Washington, but I got it from the man myself, as follows:
“I was riding with him (Mr. Potts) in Montgomery County, Penn’a near to the Valley Forge, where the army lay during the war of ye Revolution. Mr. Potts was a Senator in our State & a Whig. I told him I was agreeably surprised to find him a friend to his country as the Quakers were mostly Tories. He said, ‘It was so and I was a rank Tory once, for I never believed that America c’d proceed against Great Britain whose fleets and armies covered the land and ocean, but something very extraordinary converted me to the Good Faith!” “What was that,” I inquired? ‘Do you see that woods, & that plain. It was about a quarter of a mile off from the place we were riding, as it happened.’ ‘There,’ said he, ‘laid the army of Washington. It was a most distressing time of ye war, and all were for giving up the Ship but that great and good man. In that woods pointing to a close in view, I heard a plaintive sound as, of a man at prayer. 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.’ “He then to me put out his right hand & said ‘I turned right about and became a Whig.'”
Mr. Snowden, as if to emphasize the piety of Washington sets forth in his records that he often saw Washington, that he accompanied seventy other clergymen to visit him on the anniversary of his birth February 22, 1792. Then Mr. Snowden adds:
“I felt much impressed in his presence and reflected upon the hand and wonderful Providence of God in raising him up and qualifying him with so many rare qualities and virtues for the good of this country and the world. Washington was not only brave and talented, but a truly excellent and pious man of God and of prayer. He always retired before a battle and in any emergency for prayer and direction.”
“When the army lay at Morristown, the Rev. Dr. Jones, administered the sacrament of ye Lord’s supper. Washington came forward at ye head of all his officers and took his seat at ye 1st table, & took of ye bread and wine, the Symbols of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, to do this in remembrance of ye L J C & thus professed himself a Christian & a disciple of the blessed Jesus.”
The Rev. Mr. Snowden’s use of “John” and not “Isaac” in referring to Potts may easily be due to momentary lapse of concentration on a single item, as happens frequently among writers who possess the correct facts but neglect their importance at the moment. In compiling a Valley Forge guide book recently the writer inadvertently placed Anthony Wayne’s birthplace in Delaware County, when as a matter of fact he had know since boyhood “Mad Anthony” was a native of Chester County.
Some published accounts of the Potts version of the “Prayer” have Potts addressing his wife as “Sarah.” True it is he had a wife by that name but she was his second spouse whom Isaac married at Abington Meeting March 10, 1803. Other writers claim Isaac Potts was a widower at the time of the Encampment and others that he did not reside at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 and 1778. These claims would seem to be in error as substantiated by “The Potts Memorial” a worthy genealogical-historical account of the Potts family compiled in 1874 by Mrs. Thomas Potts (Isabella) James, after eleven years of painstaking work. In Mrs. James’ record Isaac Potts is shown as marrying Martha Bolton at Plymouth Meeting December 6, 1770, that she lived with Isaac at Valley Forge in 1777 and 1778 and died April 39, 1798 at Cheltenham, Montgomery County.
Potts’ Biographer Speaks
The prevailing idea that Isaac Potts owned and carried on the valley forge before or during the Revolution seems to have no foundation in fact. His own family biographer does not find that he had any connection with the
One should read what Potts’ biographer, Mrs. Thomas Potts James says about “the Prayer of Valley Forge,” and note her authority. Mrs. James writes
it was not in human nature, or Quaker nature either, for Isaac to be very much pleased to run his mill according to military requisition, to see his peaceful valley invaded by men at arms. That he changed his mind when he overheard Washington’s devotions is evident. I copied from a paper in the possession of one of his grand-daughters. It is in the handwriting of, and signed by, his daughter, Ruth-Anna, who died in 1811.
The daughter’s story differs in some particulars from that of Weems and also from accounts given by Watson and Lossing. Yet, there is no substantial difference. The writing of Potts’ daughter preserves the devotional scene to its concluding observations by Potts that “if George Washington be not a man of God, I am mistaken, and still more shall I be disappointed if God do not through him perform some great thing for this country.”
Ex-Pension Agent’s Version
An old file of “The Aldine Press,” a periodical published in New York, 1878, contains an informative series captioned “The Spur of Monmouth.” The title was suggested to the author by a friend who claimed to have located in a baronial residence in Dorsetshire, England, a spur lost by Washington either on the Monmouth battlefield or nearby.
The author, writing as “An Ex-Pension Agent” particularizes his birth at the beginning of the 18th century when the echoes of Yorktown’s cannon had scarcely died upon the national ear. He was surrounded by old men and by men of middle age who had passed through many of the scenes of conflict in their childhood. Attaining manhood that writer became a pension agent and dispenser of the national half-yearly pay to hundreds of veterans and widows. This man recorded recollections of the war obtained in confidential friendships with many Men of the Revolution, “confident,” he says, “in the main I shall remember correctly the most important incidents.” He observed that he was “conscious the Centennial is my last opportunity to fulfil any portion of my long-deferred duty, believing that I have that, within my knowledge which should not be allowed to pass to the grave with me.”
The Ex-Pension Agent’s version of “the Prayer at Valley Forge” approaches on the dramatic. He elaborates on a bond of fellowship between Marquis de Lafayette and General Peter Muhlenberg, based largely on their common knowledge of the French language. The author places these two men together frequently in comradeship.
Leading up to the incident of the prayer he says “it was something past noon on the 17th day of January that the two men crossed the little bridge over the Valley Creek, descending toward the Schuylkill and quarters from a visit just paid to invalided troops in the hospital on the road half-a-mile to the west.” From this point in the narrative the story is taken from the Ex-Pension Agent’s Centennial Article.
“Crossing the little bridge over the Valley Creek, that day, the two had temporarily forgotten both place and time, and were deep in conversation, in French, on the literature of the language, — the young Frenchman having, so to speak, gone home to his own loved land, and the other willingly accompanied him. Forming the corner of the road, as it turned down the creek toward the Schuylkill, stood a barn, with the yards belonging to it — at some little distance from the head-quarters, but appertaining to it, and used by the commander-in-chief for stabling his favorite white horse, and one or two other animals of his stud. Among the horses in the stables, was a fine brown, lately the property of Washington, but within a few days presented by him to Lafayette, on his return from the North, and not yet removed to the possession of the latter. It chanced that General Muhlenberg had not yet seen the animal; and Lafayette invited him, as they approached the barn, to enter and view his valuable acquisition — an acquisition, by the way, which he retained throughout the war, in full efficiency for service, and spent no inconsiderable sum to have taken in safety to France when his labors of love in America were ended.
“Conversation between the companions had dropped, as they came nigh the door of the barn; and it was not resumed as Lafayette laid his hand on the door and opened it. As he did so, the door making literally no noise, the winter light streamed full into the lean-to connected with the stable, and for one notable moment revealed a spectacle which, described improperly and with singular distortions, has been the subject of narration and admiration over the world for an entire century. There it was that in that instant’s glance, they saw the Father of his Country kneeling, on some of the hay thrown down from above for later supply to the horses — the cloak cast back from his noble figure, his hat lying beside him, his hands clasped and raised to Heaven, and his closed eyes looking upward as only the eyes of faith and Christian confidence can do, to the Father of Light, whose presence is no surer in the temple than the hovel — nay, whose well-beloved Son had his place of earthly nativity in a stable sheltering far humbler animals than those of this place and presence.
“No spoken word was issuing from the lips of the suppliant — at that moment, whatever might have been the case at some other spot and season. The closed eyes evidently saw nothing earthly — not even the light streaming suddenly in — and the closed ears evidently heard not the opening of the door. The face, as Peter Muhlenberg sometimes spoke of it, later, was grandly sad and sorrowful, seeming entirely wrapped in awful contemplation of human weakness and that eternal might which could alone supplement and make it able to do its duty in the world.
“Not one of the seers or prophets of old had ever been more thoroughly carried away from mere immediate surroundings — more completely grossed in the highest office and privilege of humanity — than seemed the hero at that memorable moment. Who shall say (though many have taken upon themselves to say), what formed the burden of that voiceless but most earnest prayer? That in it was embodied such a supplication for his periled country, as few lips have ever uttered, the man and his surroundings alike contribute to prove. That there was also embodied an agonized appeal for personal guidance from above, in the task which at that juncture may have seemed beyond the ability of any mere mortal, is not more to be doubted; without the certainty of this, George Washington, and the history of the United States of America would have need to be far differently written.
“But what more? Who shall say what more? Who shall guess what more? Were there other clouds and shadows wrapping heart and brain of the hero, at that stage of his existence, than even those involving the fate of his beloved land? Were there other strengths necessary, and so recognized, than those which should make him wise in council and invincible in the field? Once more — who shall say? So it was that the physical fact of the Prayer at Valley Forge came to human knowledge; so we may well leave the subject of the prayer to the destinies hearing words in the silence and either answering or denying them.
“All this, to the sight of the two spectators, occupied but a moment. It would not be truth to say that Lafayette shut the door on the instant; something outside himself held eye and hand until both he and his companion had fully taken in the scene and comprehended its purport. Then, gently and silently as he might have drawn the scarf over the face of a sleeping babe, the young French officer closed the door, and the two stood looking into each other’s face, without. Not a word, even then — not a word until, by mutual consent, they had retraced their steps through the narrow yard, to the road, and were turning once more in the direction of the Schuylkill. Even then, the words to be put upon record with reference to it, were few, but how pregnant with meaning! Spoken, like those last preceding them, in French, they have their place here, in their English reading:
“He is a wonderful man — the commander!” -the exclamation of Lafayette.
“The spectacle is a sublime one; it fills me with shame while it inspires me with new faith and hope!” the reply of Muhlenberg.
“As how, general?” the inquiry and the glance accompanying, evidencing surprise.
“As thus, marquis! I descended from a pulpit to assume arms: George Washington, in the midst of a warlike profession, ascends higher, and more near to God, than my pulpit. It is well for the cause — for HIM; but as for me — do you not understand that it shames me?”
“Shames you, general? Not so. Pardon me if I say that, instead, it should make your pride the higher, as showing that prayer and the profession of arms are not incompatible, when the prayer is earnest and the cause is felt to be just! Think once more, General; am I not right?”
“You are right, Marquis!” warmly grasping the hand of the other. “You are right, and I thank you.”
“I am not of your faith, general, or of the Commander’s as you know,” was the reply, with the grasp of the hand warmly returned. “But all faith meets together, here. Duty is noble; prayer is yet nobler. In my country I sometimes fear that they have half forgotten to pray. When they quite forget, the good God keep them from themselves!”
“Amen! — But let us hope that such a time will never come — there or here! said the Virginian.
“Yes, let us hope so, general. But who knows? I trust the Commander did not see or hear us — that we did not disturb him. Peste on the horse that should have let me into the danger of doing so! No — that is not well; for what I have seen I shall never forget, and I would not forget it if I could.”
“Nor I Marquis — be sure.”
“No — both were right in the assertion. Peter Muhlenberg never lost the memory of that scene, or quite forgot the feeling of that moment, in the later days of the war or the honorable occupations following it. And did Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, when his fearful alternative prophecy had been proved sooth — when a whole nation not only forgot prayer but denied God, and throned a courtesan as the Goddess of Reason and the ruling power of the universe?”
Washington Avowed God’s Blessing
There you have them — two traditions about “The Prayer of Valley Forge.” Apparently there is a lack of the authentication with which the historian seeks to monument his recordings in all the solemnity of established fact. Yet, why, it may be asked, should people of a Christian nation, professing a trust in the Supreme Being, proclaiming that profession even on the minted coin of barter and trade, inscribing it on their secular and legal documents, displaying an allegorical plaque on their Sub-Treasury in New York depicting the actual scene of the prayer — why, it seems pertinent to inquire, should they discard that faith in one more tradition which places the great and lonely Man of Valley Forge as the centerpiece of an act that indicates a profession of faith in the efficacy of prayer.
Is it not reasonable to believe that a man who had, on frequent occasions, paid homage publicly to the God of all nations and earnestly exhorted his soldiers and his fellow countrymen to “express our grateful acknowledgements to God, for the manifold blessings he has granted to us,” may have sought seclusion for his own private communion with the Father. Surely the evidence of Washington’s faith is sufficiently established to satisfy a layman, if not an historian.
He called a general thanks to God for December 18, 1777, as provided by Congressional resolution, but more to the point are his words written to the Rev. Israel Evans, Chaplain to Poor’s New Hampshire Brigade. Mr. Evans had caused his sermon, as delivered at Gulph Mills the day before the entry into Valley Forge, to be printed by Francis Bailey at Lancaster and one of these imprints reached Washington March 12, 1778. From Headquarters, Valley Forge, the next day, March 13, Washington wrote Mr. Evans as follows:
“Revd. Sir: Your favor of the 17th. Ulto., inclosing the discourse which you delivered on the 18th. of December; the day set a part for a general thanksgiving; to Genl. Poors’ Brigade, never came to my hands till yesterday.
“I have read this performance with equal attention and pleasure, and at the same time that I admire, and feel the force of the reasoning which you have displayed through the whole, it is more especially incumbent upon me to thank you for the honorable, but partial mention you have made of my character; and to assure you, that it will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavors to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends; and moreover, to assure you, that with the respect and regard, I am, etc.”
Is it too hard to believe a man who sets down in writing the first wish of his heart is “to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that All wise and powerful Being on whom alone our Success depends,” may have sought Divine Guidance, through prayer, in the darkest hour of the conflict for human rights?
Above all else at Valley Forge Washington held to his faith, and prayer was an essential of his belief — whether vocal in the wooded tract, silent in the stable stall, on bended knee at the bedside or in concert with associates at public service. It is well for men’s souls to feel that a leader of men sought and obtained guidance from the Son of Man.
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