As I’ve posted before, part of the reason I’ve been a bit sporadic with posting my blog here is that I’m working on finishing up the second volume of my book, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. I’m now finally getting to the point where I have enough parts of the book in their almost final form to start posting some previews.
One of the things I wanted to do with Volume 2 was to dispel some of the overall myths promoted by the revisionists, particularly the one that church/state disputes were unknown before 1947, the year that the Everson v. Board of Education case brought the phrase “separation between church and state” into common usage. How I’ll be doing this is by taking a look at some of the many church/state disputes predating 1947, demonstrating that these disputes have been going on since the earliest days of our country, and that 1947 was in no way the pivotal year that the revisionists make it out to be.
In choosing which stories I should include, I tried to pick ones that killed several birds with one stone — showing a pre-1947 church/state dispute while, at the same time, addressing other lies and tactics of the Christian nationalist history revisionists.
One of the stories I chose was the dispute in the early 1900s between the official Valley Forge National Historical Park and the unofficial Valley Forge Historical Society’s competing “historical” site. In addition to this dispute occurring decades before 1947, it was the unofficial Valley Forge Historical Society, founded by a minister to promote George Washington as a religious figure, that catapulted some of today’s most often heard lies about Washington. (For those familiar with the revisionist lies, these include Washington’s alleged prayer journal, which is included in this preview excerpt, and the Isaac Potts / George Washington kneeling in prayer story, which is not included here but is thoroughly debunked in the book.)
Something else I like about this particular story are the creative ways that the commissioners of the Valley Forge National Historical Park came up with to keep the pseudo-historic religious site from taking over or becoming part of the official historic site. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of these early park officials, the unofficial religious attractions at Valley Forge, such as the Washington Memorial Chapel, have now become part of the tour, leaving countless visitors unaware that this part of the tour is not part of the official historical site, and is not historically accurate.
From Liars For Jesus, Volume 2:
In his book Original Intent, David Barton includes a chapter called “Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice.” In this remarkably hypocritical chapter, Barton not only accuses others of revising history, but accuses them of doing so by using the very tactics that he himself uses to create his lies. Barton names, describes, and gives examples of nine different revisionist tactics, the first of which is “The Use of Patent Untruths.” And what does Barton use as his examples accusing secularists of using patent untruths? Well, a few patent untruths, of course!
According to Barton: “W.E. Woodward, a revisionist active in the 1920s, also employed the use of patent untruths, asserting:
‘The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington’s published letters.’
“And yet, on June 12, 1779, to the Delaware Indian Chiefs, Washington declared:
‘You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention.’”
W.E. Woodward was not lying when he wrote that Jesus Christ was not mentioned in the vast collection of Washington’s published letters. This is absolutely true. The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in any of Washington’s published letters. First of all, the document that Barton claims as his proof that Woodward was lying wasn’t a letter. But, more importantly, that document, a speech to the Delaware chiefs, had not been published as of 1926, so Woodward would not have known about it when he was writing his book. The first collection of Washington’s writings to include this speech wasn’t published until 1936, a decade after Woodward’s book was published.(1) Apparently, Barton, who promotes himself as an expert on the writings of the founders, either doesn’t know that the first edition of Washington’s writings that was even close to being a complete collection wasn’t published until the 1930s, didn’t bother to check the earlier editions for this speech before accusing Woodward of lying, or did know that the speech hadn’t been published as of 1926 and decided to ignore this pesky fact and accuse Woodward of lying anyway.
The reason for Washington’s mention of Jesus Christ in his speech to the Delaware chiefs, the only such mention to appear in any of his writings, was merely Washington repeating back to the chiefs what they themselves had written, as will be explained later in this chapter. But first, there is more to Barton’s lie.
In order to give the impression that Washington’s speech to the Delaware chiefs was just one of many documents in which Washington used the name Jesus Christ, Barton adds what he claims to be another example.
Barton continues: “Furthermore, in one single document (a well-worn, handwritten prayer book found among Washington’s personal writings after his death), the name “Jesus Christ’ was used directly sixteen times; it also appeared numerous additional times in varied forms (e.g., ‘Jesus,’ ‘Lord Jesus,’ etc.).”
The prayer book referred to by Barton is mentioned or quoted from in numerous Christian nationalist American history books, and appears on countless websites. Tim LaHaye, for example, in his book Faith of Our Founding Fathers, includes several pages of prayers from it, introduced by the following statement.
According to LaHaye: “That President George Washington was a devout believer in Jesus Christ and had accepted Him as His Lord and Savior is easily demonstrated by a reading of his personal prayer book (written in his own handwriting), which was discovered in 1891 among a collection of his papers. To date no historian has questioned its authenticity. It consists of twenty-four pages of his morning and evening prayers, revealing many of his theological beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, sin, salvation, eternal life, and himself as a humble servant of Christ.”
William Federer, in his book America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, also includes the prayers, introducing them with the following: “In 1752, George Washington created a personal prayer book, consisting of 24 pages in his field notebook, in his own handwriting…”
Barton, LaHaye, and Federer, along with many other revisionists, simply ignore the fact that the Washington prayer book was long ago determined to be a fake. LaHaye’s claim that no historian to date has questioned its authenticity is ridiculous. Historians began questioning this book’s authenticity as soon as its discovery was reported.
The prayer book, first published in 1891, was found by Stan V. Henkel in a trunk owned at that time by Lawrence Washington. Henkel, a Philadelphia auctioneer, was preparing for a sale of Washington artifacts, passed down to Lawrence Washington and three other Washington family descendants. Lawrence Washington told Henkel that the contents of the trunk had already been rejected by the Smithsonian Institution, but Henkel wanted to examine them anyway. Henkel looked at the prayer book, and, in spite of its rejection by the Smithsonian, claimed that it was in the handwriting of George Washington at twenty years old. A facsimile of the book was published by Henkel under the title Fac-Simile of Manuscript Prayer-Book by George Washington, and the original manuscript was sold to a New York collector for $1,250.
The next printing of the prayer book was in 1907, when Henkel gave Rev. William Herbert Burk permission to reprint the 1891 facsimile. The book was published by Burk in a book called Washington’s Prayers, published for the benefit of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge. Burk, an Episcopalian minister in Norristown, Pennsylvania, was in the midst of raising money to complete his Washington Memorial Chapel, a project he had begun in 1903.
This was not the first attempt to build a church at Valley Forge. In the mid-1880s, a Baptist minister, James Guthrie, began raising funds for a chapel. Guthrie’s project, however, never got any farther than dedicating a cornerstone in 1886. But Burk had more success than Guthrie. A piece of land was donated to the Episcopal Church by I. Heston Todd and Charles Todd, and, on June 19, 1903, the 125th anniversary of the departure of Washington’s troops from Valley Forge, a ceremony was held at which the deed to the property was formally accepted and the cornerstone of the Washington Memorial Chapel dedicated. The first service to be held at the chapel was on Washington’s birthday 1905. Although the chapel would not be completely finished until a decade later, and regular services were still being held in a temporary wooden building, the basic structure, with the exception of the permanent roof, was in place by this time. In 1910, Burk received permission from the Episcopal Church for his Washington Memorial Congregation to break from his congregation in Norristown and become an independent parish.
Burk’s ambitious plans did not end with his chapel. He also began establishing a museum, soliciting donations of colonial artifacts from wealthy residents in the area. In 1918, he founded the Valley Forge Historical Society, allowing him to raise funds for his other projects independently of those for the church. In the 1920s, however, Burk’s plans began to clash with those of the Valley Forge Park Commission, whose ultimate goal was to restore Valley Forge to what it looked like in the winter of 1777-1778. Although Burk was also on the Park Commission at this time, his own projects were completely separate from those commissioned by the state.
By the late 1920s, Burk’s plans included building a cathedral large enough to seat five thousand people, to be completed by the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932. He unsuccessfully tried to purchase some of the land that the Park Commission had acquired, but managed to obtain fifteen acres from a private owner whose house had burned down. In 1928, the same year Burk laid the cornerstone for his cathedral, the Park Commission opened its first museum, using a converted barn to exhibit artifacts unearthed during the excavations.
The commissioners strongly objected to the building of a cathedral in such close proximity to the historical site. The presence of Burk’s chapel and museum already bothered some people – the museum because some of its artifacts were said to be of questionable authenticity, and the chapel because there had been no chapel at Valley Forge in 1777. There were some complaints about the promotion of a particular religion at a historic site, but the main objection was the historical inaccuracy. The Park Commission, of course, could do nothing about Burk’s chapel or museum because they were operated by private organizations on private property. They could, however, stop Burk’s chapel from deriving any benefit from the park.
For a number of years, the chapel’s congregation and visitors had been using Park Commission land as a parking lot. In 1928, the commissioners appointed a parking committee, which resolved that the state was under no obligation to provide facilities for a private institution. This resolution was immediately followed by a decision to forbid parking near the chapel. The reason given was that the cars were destroying an area in which soldiers might be buried. Burk, of course, knew that soldiers’ graves had nothing to do with the committee’s decision and responded that if this was a real concern, the Park Commission could have the area excavated and place stone markers over any graves that were found. Burk went as far as petitioning the governor, but the Park Commission won, and signs were put up prohibiting parking in the area. In 1929, shortly after this dispute, Burk resigned from the Park Commission. That same year, the commissioners voted on a resolution to use eminent domain to take the land on which Burk planned to build his cathedral. This apparently went too far for some of the commissioners, and the vote was tied, allowing Burk to keep his land.
The final episode in the feud between Burk and the Park Commission occurred in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover was planning a Memorial Day visit to Valley Forge. Hoover, who had been named an honorary member of Burk’s historical society, originally planned to visit Burk’s Washington memorial, where it was expected that he would dedicate a new statue of Washington. The Park Commission, however, put a stop to this by inviting Hoover to the park to inspect the restoration work on Washington’s headquarters. Hoover accepted the Park Commission’s invitation, changing his plans from visiting Burk’s unofficial memorial to touring and giving a Memorial Day address at the official National Park site.
On the day of Hoover’s visit, Burk wasn’t even invited to sit with the commissioners and guests on the speakers’ platform, which was deliberately placed directly across the street from his unofficial Washington memorial to taunt him. The commissioners also sent Burk a letter informing him that they had assured the officials in Washington D.C. that the bells at his chapel would not be rung either before or after Hoover’s address. And, as a final snub, the commissioners, who had, of course, been labelled enemies of religion in Burk’s sermons, invited another Episcopalian, Bishop Francis M. Tait, to deliver an invocation at their event, making it impossible for Burk to claim he was edged out for religious reasons.
When Burk died two years later in 1933, his plan for a Valley Forge cathedral died with him. The Washington Memorial Chapel, however, exists to this day, and is still promoting the myths about Washington that Burk built it to promote. Many of these myths are depicted in the chapel’s stained glass windows, which include a window dedicated to the famous tale of the Quaker who came upon Washington on his knees in prayer at Valley Forge, said to have been Burk’s inspiration for building the chapel. The Washington Memorial Chapel, although privately funded and operated, is promoted on the National Park Service’s website, and appears on the Park Service’s map, as if it were part of the Valley Forge National Historical Park. Needless to say, most visitors to the website or the park itself probably make the assumption that this very religious and historically inaccurate building is part of the park, and endorsed or funded by the government.
The next printing of the so-called Washington prayer book was in the 1919 book George Washington the Christian, written by William J. Johnson.(2) This book, which has been reprinted many times, is used as a source by nearly all of the current Christian nationalist history revisionists, and is highly recommended for Christian homeschooling.
Among the many historians to question the prayer book’s authenticity was Rupert Hughes. In his 1926 book George Washington: The Human Being and the Hero, the first volume of his three volume biography of Washington, Hughes presented side by side images of the handwriting from the prayer book and examples from authenticated Washington documents from the period in which the prayer book was allegedly written.(3) It doesn’t take a handwriting expert to see that these weren’t written by the same person. A number of other historians and handwriting experts, including Worthington C. Ford, editor of the second major collection of Washington’s writings, also determined that the book was not in Washington’s handwriting.
Even after it was revealed that the prayer book was not Washington’s, historians remained curious about the source of the prayers, and whether they were composed by the prayer book’s author or simply copied from some other book. Franklin Steiner, in his 1936 book Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents, reported that Dr. W.A. Croffutt, a newspaper correspondent in Washington D.C., had solved that mystery, finding some of the prayers in a book in the Library of Congress that dated back to the reign of James the First.
Tim LaHaye, after quoting a number of these prayers that weren’t written by Washington, draws the following conclusion from them.
According to LaHaye: “An objective reading of these beautiful prayers verifies that were George Washington living today, he would freely identify with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence on our nation.”
Nobody can honestly claim to know for sure what George Washington’s religious beliefs were. Even those who knew him well, including a number of clergymen, weren’t absolutely certain. Most, however, seem to have been pretty sure that he wasn’t really a Christian, and the notion that, if he were alive today, he would “freely identify with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity” of Tim LaHaye, a notion based on a prayer journal that was long ago determined not to have even been written by Washington, is just ridiculous.
1. The collections of Washington’s writings published before 1926 were The Writings of George Washington, edited by Jared Sparks (12 volumes, 1833-37), and The Writings of George Washington, edited by Worthington C. Ford (14 volumes, 1889-93). Neither of these collections contained Washington’s May 12, 1779 speech to the Delaware chiefs. Washington’s May 14, 1779 letter to Congress, with which a copy of the speech was enclosed, was added in the Ford edition, but the speech itself was not. The first collection to contain the speech was The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (39 volumes, 1931-44). It appears in Volume 15 of this collection, which was printed in 1936.
2. There seems to be some confusion regarding the name of the author of the 1919 book George Washington, The Christian. This book is sometimes attributed to William Jackson Johnstone, and sometimes to William J. Johnson. It is the same author. He changed his name from Johnson to Johnstone in 1927, so editions of his books prior to 1927 say Johnson and after this date say Johnstone.
3. The handwriting samples used by Rupert Hughes for his comparison were from 1748 (age sixteen) and 1757 (age twenty-five), allowing his critics to assert that there was a possibility that Washington’s handwriting at age twenty differed from these samples, and might still match the prayer book. A more recent comparison can be found in the 2005 book The Ways of Providence: Religion & George Washington, by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. of the University of Virginia. Grizzard includes a sample of Washington’s handwriting at exactly age twenty, the facsimile pages of the prayer book, and W. Herbert Burk’s introduction to his 1907 printing. Washington’s handwriting at age twenty, of course, is no closer to that in the prayer book than the slightly earlier and later samples used by Hughes.