Note— 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. This year his birthday has passed, but today is Ash Wednesday—close enough for hand grenades, horseshoes, and Patrick poetry I say.
Since the entirely spurious story of the Vision at Valley Forge was reportedly made in 1859 reminiscences of 99-year-old Anthony Sherman, who was supposedly present with Continental Army at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 and overheard Washington tell an officer that an angel had revealed a prophetic vision of America to him. There is no other confirmation of this and the recollections or revels recounted second hand make it dubious.
It did not see print until April 1861 just at the outbreak of the Civil War by Philadelphia journalist Charles Wesley Alexander. Writing under the pseudonym Wesley Bradshaw, Alexander authored several fictional vision or dream pieces featuring historic American figures which were published as broadsheets and in various newspapers during the Civil War and were later offered for sale through advertisements in the pages of The Soldier’s Casket, his post-war publication. It was meant to be allegorical fiction but 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 of the fact that many of them were rationalists, Deists, or adherents of heretical sects or theologies.
Arnold Fribeg's painting of Washington praying at Valley Forge has become an iconic symbol.
An iconic image by artist Arnold Friberg—one of several versions 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 was retooled as an anti-Communist screed.
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’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.
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.