J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Invoking the Sacred Name of Washington

At the expanding American Creation group blog, Jonathan Rowe recently wrote about an attempt by Philadelphia’s orthodox Christian ministers in 1797 to get George Washington to give them special attention—perhaps to acknowledge the primacy of Christianity or the divinity of Jesus. They addressed a public letter to the departing President “in our special characters as ministers of the gospel of Christ.”

His wise reply praised the “harmony and brotherly love which characterizes the Clergy of different denominations.”

Rowe closed his piece with those two documents from 1797, apparently the only contemporaneous sources on this incident. The other sources are retrospective interpretations of that exchange from Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, the Rev. Ashbel Green, and other men. There was a heated debate over what exactly the clergymen had planned. Did they really try to manipulate the President? As usual, no one wanted to be seen as sinning against the sainted Washington.

Which brings me to what Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) spouted on the House floor last month. In that long American tradition, she also tried to invoke Washington to support her own religious views. At the Huffington Post, Chris Rodda corrected her falsehoods. After quoting the words that Bachmann said Washington had included in an inaugural address, Rodda writes:

Where did this prayer come from? Well, it’s a rewriting of the last paragraph of the circular letter sent by Washington to the governors of the states in 1783, when he resigned from the Army at the end of the Revolutionary War. This paragraph was altered by a church, inserting a few “Thys,” “Thous,” and “Thees,” and adding the “Almighty God” opening at the beginning, and the “through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” closing to the end, thus creating Washington’s “prayer for the nation.” . . .

Bachman then continued to display her incredible ignorance of American history by saying that the founders signed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the same day...
Meanwhile, Minnesotans continue to be deprived of their full representation in the Senate.

(Today’s image is one version of “The Apotheosis of Washington,” courtesy of the Morristown National Historical Park. This is watercolor on glass, one of the nineteenth century’s equivalents of glow-in-the-dark paint on black velvet.)


Rob Velella said...

I'd like to hear more about this deification of Washington. One of the more bizarre experiences I had was at Valley Forge, where the Washington Chapel displays a robed Washington in lieu of the usual Jesus sculptures and artwork. I found it a bit disconcerting to see ol' George as a religious icon.

J. L. Bell said...

In posthumous paintings and engravings of Washington, there are two common religious poses. One is shown above, of the “Father of Our Country” being taken up to heaven by angels at his death.

The other, all over that chapel at Valley Forge, illustrates Parson Mason Weems’s legend about the general praying in the snow during the winter of 1777-78.

There’s no solid historical evidence for either event. But both conflate a certain understanding of piety with a certain understanding of patriotism.

Jonathan Rowe said...