Saturday, February 25, 2017

We Interrupt the George Washington Series With a Damn Poem

George Washington takes communion with his aids and officers at an outdoor service supposedly held by the Morristown Presbyterian Church which claims he officially joined during the period when the Continental Army was headquartered there.  The claim is boosted on right wing web sites trying to prove that Washington was a fervent evangelical Christian.

Note—Once again a long and ambitious blog series has overwhelmed and exhausted Ye Olde Prop.  In order to catch my breath and catch up, we interrupt these biographical essays with a related poem you may have seen here before.

Back in 2012 by calendar happenstance George Washington’s Birthday and Ash Wednesday coincided.  As regular denizens of this refuge for flying electrons knows that sort of thing often inexplicably moves me to commit poetry.  Well, this year the dates were pretty far apart, but Ash Wednesday is creeping up on us this coming week.  Close enough for hand grenades, horseshoes, and Patrick poetry I say.
Since the entirely specious made it’s first appearance the story, meant to be allegorical fiction was swallowed hook, line, and sinker by American Evangelicals and some Catholics who would find the mystical revelation an echo of many saint tales.  It has also been cynically promoted by certain hyper-conservative elements as proof that Washington and other Founders were deep and profound Christians in refutation that many of them were rationalists, Deists, or adherents of heretical sects or theologies. 
An iconic image by artist Arnold Friberg—one of several version created over the years—was widely used to promote this pseudo history.  The story, image, and propaganda punch got new wings during the McCarthy era Red Scare of the early ‘50’s when the original so called prophesy—obviously meant as a metaphor for the Civil War when it was first penned by Charles Wesley Alexander under his nom de plume Wesley Bradshaw in April of 1861 and republished by Alexander in his magazine for Union veterans, The Soldier’s Casket in 1888—was retooled as an anti-Communist screed.

Arnold Fribeg's painting of Washington praying at Valley Forge has become an iconic symbol.
These days it is a handy tool in the dominionist belt for asserting a claim that the U.S. is a Christian Nation and should be ruled in the name of Christ.
All of which begs the question—what were Washington’s actual religious beliefs?  Conservatives point out that he was a life-long Anglican and served as a Vestryman in his local parish.  True enough.  As the local squire the role of Vestryman—a lay member of a parish governing council—was an expected duty.  Washington from adolescence always was keenly aware of the duties of a gentleman and his obligation to fill them.  But in adulthood like many Virginians of his class he became influenced by the heretical philosophies of the Scottish Enlightenment, and eventually Deism.  While never a deep religious thinker like young Thomas Jefferson, he privately discarded most of the tenets of orthodox Christianity.  In his letters, writings, and public utterances he sometimes used the word God but more frequently used Deist constructions like Providence.  He virtually never referenced Jesus Christ. 
In adulthood he often skipped regular Sunday services when he could—his duties as a soldier and statesman provided ample excuses.   When he did attend, he always left after the sermon and before the call to the communion rail.

Washington as Grand Master Mason laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol.
Washington’s real spiritual life was rooted in Freemasonry, to which he was devoted.  The Masonry of his era combined esoteric mystic ritual with strong Deist elements and more than a dash of republican (small r) radicalism.  Washington famously laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building wearing his Grand Master Mason apron.  The eye-in-the-pyramid on the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States, seen most commonly on the back of the one dollar bill is generally credited to the influence of the First President on its design.
Anyway, all of that was rolling around my fevered brain and contributed to this opus.

The Vestryman
Ash Wednesday/Washington’s Birthday 2012

The Vestryman performing the duty expected of the local Squire
            attended chapel when absolutely necessary
            and when no good excuse like fighting an Empire
            or Fathering a Country was handy.

He sat bolt upright on a rigid pew
            contemplated the charms of Lady Fairfax
                        or later dental misery.

            When came the Altar Call, he would stand up,
                        turn on his heel, and march straight out
                        as if a legion was at his back.

            No filthy priestly thumb ever grimed
                        that noble brow.

—Patrick Murfin     


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