Diary

Bad News about the Washington Prayer

US Congresswoman Michelle has been using a well known “Washington Prayer” and attributing it to Washington’s first inaugural address.  It has also been used at the National Prayer Breakfast. I am afraid that this is another “historical” problem for her like not knowing that the census was written into the Constitution and the questions written by James Madison, and that the Revolution started in Concord, Massachusetts not Concord, New Hampshire and whose administration swine flu had occured in.  Unfortunately the prayer was exposed as a hoax by Franklin Steiner who in 1925 found the prayer at the pew in St. Paul’s Chapel in which it is said George Washington sat when he attended services while President before the Capitol was moved to Philadelphia.  This was in preparation for the 1936 book by Steiner, The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents.  This prayer is usually attributed to the family legend of an ancestor who saw Washington praying on the family farm during the Winter of Valley Forge.  Steiner, in the link, shows this story to be also untrue since the farm was sold to that family 2 years later.  I have included the link to the Steiner book.  Everything that follows is the entire story of the Washington Prayer as told by Steiner.  I present it without further comment.  However, I have added a clean copy of Washington’s original text for convenience at the end.  Please get the message to those using this prayer to avoid further embarrassment.

http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/henriques/hist615/steiner.htm

Beginning of Steiner text

“In the fall of 1925 I was on a visit to New York City after an absence of some years. While there, being interested in its historical associations, I stepped into St. Paul’s Chapel, located on the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street. I took a look at the pew in this old church, erected in 1776, in which it is said George Washington sat when he attended services while President of the United States, when the seat of government was located in New York City. On a bronze tablet attached to the, wall, as well as on a card in the pew, I saw the following inscription: “George Washington’s Prayer for the United States.”

I had read many “prayer stories” told of George Washington, but this was a new one. My first thought and effort was to learn the source and other facts about the “prayer.” I wrote the vicar of St. Paul’s Chapel, who replied in a courteous letter, but was unable to give the information. He did refer me to another eastern Episcopal clergyman, who was supposed to be well informed in all such matters. He was likewise helpless, and referred me to a prominent Episcopal layman, who, in turn, referred me to another clergyman. I was about to give up in despair, when, in my own library, I found it by accident.

In 1783, shortly before Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, a financial stringency, accompanied by anarchy and riots, swept the country. The soldiers demanded their pay, which Congress was unable to provide. Something had to be done to alleviate the distress and discontent. Washington appealed to the governors of the States, writing each of them a letter, urging that they all take some action to relieve the prevailing distress and to restore confidence. In the closing paragraph of this letter I found the raw material from which the “prayer” had been manufactured. I quote them here, capitalizing in the “prayer” those words the prayer-makers have interpolated, and in the original, the words they have omitted.

The Alleged Prayer

(added words in capital letters)

ALMIGHTY GOD, WE MAKE OUR EARNEST PRAYER THAT THOU WILT KEEP THESE UNITED STATES in THY holy protection, that THOU wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, And finally that THOU wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of Whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. GRANT OUR SUPPLICATION, WE BESEECH THEE, THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD. AMEN.

(Engraved on a bronze tablet in St. Paul’s Chapel, Broadway and Vesey Streets, New York City.)

Its Source

(omitted words in capital letters)

“I NOW MAKE IT MY EARNEST PRAYER, THAT GOD WOULD HAVE YOU, AND THE STATE OVER WHICH YOU PRESIDE, in HIS holy protection; that HE would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, AND PARTICULARLY FOR THEIR BRETHREN WHO HAVE SERVED IN THE FIELD; and finally, that HE would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose examples in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

“I HAVE THE HONOR TO BE, WITH MUCH ESTEEM AND RESPECT, SIR, YOUR EXCELLENCY’S MOST OBEDIENT AND MOST HUMBLE SERVANT. — G. WASHINGTON.”

(Found in Ford’s ‘Writings of Washington,’ vol. x, p. 265.)

In making a prayer from this last paragraph of a letter to civil magistrates the prayer promoters have committed sins both of omission and commission:

Instead of “sir,” with which Washington begins his letter to the governors, they have written, “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer, etc.” Washington in the original speaks in the first person, singular. He does not speak directly to God, but he makes an earnest prayer, or wish that God will do a certain thing. The prayer makers use the first person plural and speak to God directly. They have omitted “and the state over which you preside,” and “for their brethren who have served in the field.” Instead of Washington’s closing, “I have the honor to be, sir, etc.,” they have substituted, “Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

That they should add this last phrase, with which all the prayers in the Episcopal prayer book terminate, was unfortunate when we consider that nowhere in Washington’s writings does he mention directly or by name Jesus Christ.”

End of Steiner text.

A clean text copy of Washington’s original text for convenience

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the state over which you preside,  in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field; and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose examples in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

I have the honor to be, with much esteem and respect, sir, your excellency’s most obedient and most humble servant. — G. Washington.