Today is President Washington’s birthday. A framed print of the painting of him praying at Valley Forge hangs in my law office. He is a hero of mine, as he is for many, and well he should be.
Below is an article about the story of Washington praying in the woods. Regardless of whether it was witnessed there, many contemporaries have reported that it was President Washington’s habit to pray regularly and fervently. The essence of the story below is that a Tory, being a British sympathizer, came across General Washington praying in the woods, and returned to tell his wife that, based on the sincere faith of General Washington, he believed the British side would lose. There is a more scholarly version below:
“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.”