A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
Professor Allitt wrote a terrific review. I share his "two possible criticisms." Determining what is or is not Christian (or "orthodox")is very difficult when examining any historical epoch. But let's all keep trying.
I find it interesting that Allitt repeats Frazer's claim that the account of the prayer at Valley Forge was fabricated by Parson Weems. To attribute this account solely to Parson Weems with no mention whatsoever of its other sources shows that Frazer was not entirely forthright in his conclusion. Frazer should have mentioned that the account of Isaac Potts witnessing Washington's prayer at Valley Forge was also verified by Mr. Potts' daughter Ruth Anna (http://books.google.com/books?id=UScAAAAAQAAJpg=PA222), by a Devault Beaver who was a contemporary of Mr. Potts (http://books.google.com/books?id=P7gf_X-mA1wC&pg=PA159) and from Dr. Snowden who claimed to have heard the account from Mr. Potts himself (http://archive.org/stream/washingtonchrist00wyli#page/28/mode/2up). Of course, it is possible, though not very probable, that all of these accounts were somehow fabricated, but Frazer's dismissal of Potts' testimony as a mere product of Weems' imagination reveals that he is not as unbiased of an observer as he claims.
Professor Allitt wrote a terrific review. I share his "two possible criticisms." As have all the critics here at this blog. And he touches a third criticism--judging the Founding by a handful of "key" Founders, rather than at least the several dozen who must share the credit. Determining what is or is not Christian (or "orthodox")is very difficult when examining any historical epoch.Not so much the epoch, but who gets to judge? Allitt:I learned much from The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders, but closed it unsure of how the author would address two possible criticisms. First, he offers a narrow definition of "Christianity" likely to offend many readers. Millions of liberal Protestants today would certainly describe themselves as Christians while actually holding to a faith Frazer himself would call theistic rationalism. In his view, it's not enough to call yourself a Christian; you must also affirm the doctrinal fundamentals. He comes from a circle of evangelical historians that has transformed American historiography in the last 30 years. Its superb leading figures—George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll—have forced American historians to take evangelical religion more seriously than ever before as a major factor in the nation's history. So far as I know, however, they never denied the term "Christians" to members of the diverse groups that make up most of the American religious landscape.Second, and on a closely related matter, Frazer never says of most figures in his book whether they did or did not call themselves Christians. It is clear that Washington and Franklin avoided using the term and that Jefferson only occasionally accepted it. But what about Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, or Alexander Hamilton? Frazer admits that the evidence about them is rather more ambiguous but never says outright whether they accepted or applied the term to themselves. In other words, while adding "theistic rationalism" to "deism" and "Christianity" as possible categories of belief among America's founders, he has shrunk "Christianity" to mean rather less than it did at the time of the Revolution itself.
I would say that he has done more than just "shrunk 'Christianity' to mean rather less than it did at the time of the Revolution itself." He has essentially defined Christianity as nothing more than fideism.
I don't think Frazer's 10 point LCD understanding of late 18th Cen. Christianity equates with "fideism." Though, Frazer's personal understanding of Christianity is fideism. Frazer also doesn't think much of natural law reasoning as am authentic Christian principle and it shows in his book.
Bill – your comment does not reflect on Allitt’s review, and your critique of Frazer’s book is a bit trivial. Frazer agrees with most historians (and Brad Hart here at AC) that Washington’s Valley Forge prayer story is fiction, not fact. Without finding and then citing all the sources (which I do not have access to), think about it. How plausible is this story; a civilian riding by on a horse – sees GW praying, gets off horse, ties it to a tree, then gets close enough to hear GW praying? Washington is the commander of the Continental army, and the British army is only an easy (i.e., few if any geographical obstacles) twenty miles away. The area in-between is a “no man’s land” of raids and suspicions about every civilian’s allegiance where no individual or group was secure. For the past ten years (more off, than on) I have been scrupulously studying Washington’s winter encampment at Morristown, NJ (1779-1780), when the British were in New York City, a difficult (i.e., many small mountain ranges and swamps) thirty miles away. Washington never went anywhere without his Life Guard (officially designated "His Excellency's Guard," or "The General's Guard," was popularly called by the soldiers "The Life Guards", "The Washington Life Guards," or "Washington Body Guard," while Washington referred to them as "My Guards" comprised mostly of fifty fellow Virginians of unquestioned loyalty). Washington would never have been alone in the woods (even if he had to pee rather than pray), and no civilian could have gotten that close unnoticed or challenged.
BillF, Barton's arguments by factoid illustrate that it's bad business to hitch your wagon to chickenshit.How many words wasted litigating whether Washington said "So Help me God" when the truth remains that he swore on a Bible, and the first thing America [president, Congress and people] did was walk to St. Paul's Chapel for a benediction?Of course Washington prayed. Avoid the tall weeds. And the shallow end of the pool.
I agree, Tom. That's why I think that historians should avoid repeating the claim that Isaac Potts' account was fabricated by Parson Weems. I'm not claiming that the account is provably true. I'm just pointing out that it is less than honest for a scholar to dismiss the account just because it is included in Weems' book. A proper refutation should account for all of the sources.By the way, I would say that the "of course" applies to more than that Washington prayed. Rather, I would say: Of course, nearly everything in Allitt's first paragraph about Washington is contrary to fact.
JMS,You should keep in mind that no two encampments are equally secure. In this case, Washington specifically chose Valley Forge because it was easily defensible. The link below will show you a map of the Valley Forge encampment. You can see that Washington's Headquarters was located between the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek which formed two sides of a natural triangle. The third side of the triangle was guarded by two lines of defense with the inner line commanding the ridge of Mount Joy. The likelihood of a British sortie infiltrating the area around the forge was extremely low.
Here's the link:http://mapas.owje.com/img/Mapa-del-Parque-Nacional-Historico-Valle-Forge-Pensilvania-Estados-Unidos-8163.jpg
Bill, I'm not going to litigate the Washington painting.https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSonNUXHpXI_gFzdw0rl7e7YZHvrTZeYdj16GemICUY5fh_LLJspAWashington paid out of his own pocket to have his uniforms tailored. He was a crappy speaker: his greatest leadership skills were being 6'3" in an age where the average height was 5'7"; his masterful horsemanship on a trademark white stallion, and his Col. Kilgore [Apocalypse Now]-like sangfroid that neither complained of bad conditions nor flinched in the face of fire.You want my conjecture? Gen. Washington espied Isaac Potts spying on him, and put on a praying show so that the legend would be taken back to the troops and for the ages.THAT'S the Washington I know!
THAT'S the Washington I know!All you see is a craven, opportunistic glory hound?
Image is part of leadership. Don't be an idiot.
Tom, the self-serving and petty trickery that you conjecture is not an honorable leadership tactic that Washington, the General and leader of the continental Army, would have employed. If he wanted his soldiers to think that he was a God fearing prayer he would have led them in solemn prayer in camp.
I can't stop you from being an idiot. Washington took an active role in having chaplains for the army. It wouldn't be his ecumenical style to lead them in prayer, but keeping up the illusion that God was on Our Side was a lifesaver for the Continental Army.Image leadership is as old as the hills. Lincoln's whiskers, FDR's jaunty cigarette holder, TR's monacle, Patton's pearl-handled pistols. Washington was all about image--there was no TV.Nothing wrong with that, indeed it's all part of the job. Mine is only a conjecture, that Washington would want to be seen as a prayerful man, but it's consistent with his character and his act.[After becoming president, Washington made sure he was spotted in St. Paul's Chapel often during the week, and even in 2 different churches on some Sundays. Read his diary for yourself.]
"...that Washington would want to be seen as a prayerful man, ..."And I simply said that there was a more direct and honorable way that was readily available for him to project this image if that was what he wanted. Which would be more consistent with his character that dropping to his knees in the woods hoping that some stranger would some day start a rumor.
Don't be an idiot. Washington knew his every action was watched. That's the whole point. Read Washington's diary as president, being seen in prayer several times a week at St. Paul's Chapel, and say, OK Tom, coupled with all your other supporting arguments about having his uniforms tailored at his own expense, his white stallions maintained at his own expense, that he took the lead in getting chaplains together for the Continental Army, that's a valid conjecture you gave substantive arguments for and sorry I got in your face.
You know that all or most of the officer class provided there own uniforms and alterations. Washington was a Virginia gentleman with a very British understanding of military rank and how that rank defined their authority. Yes, he was a good rider. Yes, he was tall. Yes, he was aware that he was establishing precedent.But none of that points to him trying to impress a stranger in the woods and hoping that somehow this lone figure would spread the word. His best option would have been to be seen in camp as a man of prayer - bowing his head and beseeching Jesus/God in front of the men. He didn't dress up as commanding General and prance his horse in the woods hoping someone with a paint kit would come along. Your contention is weak.
Of course, there should be their.
Bill - thanks for the map of Valley Forge. I am very familiar with the area, having lived in the Phila area for most of my early years.Of course it was "defensible." GW was the proverbial "fox" always finding a well-situated and strategic "lair." My point was that Valley Forge was less defensible than Jockey Hollow, due to the natural terrain. But your statement: "The likelihood of a British sortie infiltrating the area around the forge was extremely low" is demonstrably false. The fear of attack was constant, the likelihood of attack was high. Both sides had to forage over the same area, and civilian loyalties were always suspect. My point is well-documented: GW did not go off alone to any woods without his aides or guards detecting (or deterring) any passing civilian like Potts.
JMS,You claimed that my statement is demonstrably false, but you have not provided any such demonstration. Do you have first hand accounts from Valley Forge stating that "the fear of attack was constant, the likelihood of attack was high"?
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