George Washington Prays at Valley Forge Stable, Lafayette & Muhlenberg

Generals Marquis de Lafayette & Rev. Peter Muhlenberg Eyewititnesses


Marquis de Lafayette & Rev. General Peter Muhlenberg Conversation

"Crossing the little bridge over the Valley Creek, that day, the two had temporarily forgotten both place and time, and were deep in conversation, in French, on the literature of the language, — the young Frenchman having, so to speak, gone home to his own loved land, and the other willingly accompanied him.

Forming the corner of the road, as it turned down the creek toward the Schuylkill, stood a barn, with the yards belonging to it — at some little distance from the head-quarters, but appertaining to it, and used by the commander-in-chief for stabling his favorite white horse, and one or two other animals of his stud.

Among the horses in the stables, was a fine brown, lately the property of Washington, but within a few days presented by him to Lafayette, on his return from the North, and not yet removed to the possession of the latter.

It chanced that General Muhlenberg had not yet seen the animal; and Lafayette invited him, as they approached the barn, to enter and view his valuable acquisition — an acquisition, by the way, which he retained throughout the war, in full efficiency for service, and spent no inconsiderable sum to have taken in safety to France when his labors of love in America were ended.

"Conversation between the companions had dropped, as they came nigh the door of the barn; and it was not resumed as Lafayette laid his hand on the door and opened it. As he did so, the door making literally no noise, the winter light streamed full into the lean-to connected with the stable, and for one notable moment revealed a spectacle which, described improperly and with singular distortions, has been the subject of narration and admiration over the world for an entire century.

There it was that in that instant's glance, they saw the Father of his Country kneeling, on some of the hay thrown down from above for later supply to the horses — the cloak cast back from his noble figure, his hat lying beside him, his hands clasped and raised to Heaven, and his closed eyes looking upward as only the eyes of faith and Christian confidence can do, to the Father of Light,

[W]hose presence is no surer in the temple than the hovel — nay, whose well-beloved Son had his place of earthly nativity in a stable sheltering far humbler animals than those of this place and presence.

"No spoken word was issuing from the lips of the suppliant — at that moment, whatever might have been the case at some other spot and season. The closed eyes evidently saw nothing earthly — not even the light streaming suddenly in — and the closed ears evidently heard not the opening of the door.

The face, as Peter Muhlenberg sometimes spoke of it, later, was grandly sad and sorrowful, seeming entirely wrapped in awful contemplation of human weakness and that eternal might which could alone supplement and make it able to do its duty in the world.

"Not one of the seers or prophets of old had ever been more thoroughly carried away from mere immediate surroundings — more completely grossed in the highest office and privilege of humanity — than seemed the hero at that memorable moment.

Who shall say (though many have taken upon themselves to say), what formed the burden of that voiceless but most earnest prayer?

That in it was embodied such a supplication for his periled country, as few lips have ever uttered, the man and his surroundings alike contribute to prove.

That there was also embodied an agonized appeal for personal guidance from above, in the task which at that juncture may have seemed beyond the ability of any mere mortal, is not more to be doubted; without the certainty of this, George Washington, and the history of the United States of America would have need to be far differently written.

"But what more?

Who shall say what more? Who shall guess what more? Were there other clouds and shadows wrapping heart and brain of the hero, at that stage of his existence, than even those involving the fate of his beloved land? Were there other strengths necessary, and so recognized, than those which should make him wise in council and invincible in the field?

Once more — who shall say? So it was that the physical fact of the Prayer at Valley Forge came to human knowledge; so we may well leave the subject of the prayer to the destinies hearing words in the silence and either answering or denying them.

"All this, to the sight of the two spectators, occupied but a moment. It would not be truth to say that Lafayette shut the door on the instant; something outside himself held eye and hand until both he and his companion had fully taken in the scene and comprehended its purport.

Then, gently and silently as he might have drawn the scarf over the face of a sleeping babe, the young French officer closed the door, and the two stood looking into each other's face, without. Not a word, even then — not a word until, by mutual consent, they had retraced their steps through the narrow yard, to the road, and were turning once more in the direction of the Schuylkill.

Even then, the words to be put upon record with reference to it, were few, but how pregnant with meaning! Spoken, like those last preceding them, in French, they have their place here, in their English reading:

"He is a wonderful man — the commander!" - the exclamation of Lafayette.

"The spectacle is a sublime one; it fills me with shame while it inspires me with new faith and hope!" the reply of Muhlenberg.

Lafayette asks: "As how, general?" the inquiry and the glance accompanying, evidencing surprise.

Muhlenberg answers: "As thus, marquis (de Lafayette)! I descended from a pulpit to assume arms: George Washington, in the midst of a warlike profession, ascends higher, and more near to God, than my pulpit. It is well for the cause — for HIM; but as for me — do you not understand that it shames me?"

Lafayette: "Shames you, general? Not so. Pardon me if I say that, instead, it should make your pride the higher, as showing that prayer and the profession of arms are not incompatible, when the prayer is earnest and the cause is felt to be just! Think once more, General; am I not right?"

Muhlenberg: "You are right, Marquis!" warmly grasping the hand of the other. "You are right, and I thank you."

Lafayette: "I am not of your faith, general, or of the Commander's as you know," was the reply, with the grasp of the hand warmly returned. "But all faith meets together, here. Duty is noble; prayer is yet nobler. In my country I sometimes fear that they have half forgotten to pray. When they quite forget, the good God keep them from themselves!"

Muhlenberg: "Amen! — But let us hope that such a time will never come — there or here! said the Virginian.

Lafayette: "Yes, let us hope so, general. But who knows? I trust the Commander did not see or hear us — that we did not disturb him. Peste on the horse that should have let me into the danger of doing so! No — that is not well; for what I have seen I shall never forget, and I would not forget it if I could."

Muhlenberg: "Nor I Marquis — be sure."

"No — both were right in the assertion. Peter Muhlenberg never lost the memory of that scene, or quite forgot the feeling of that moment, in the later days of the war or the honorable occupations following it.

And did Gilbert Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, when his fearful alternative prophecy had been proved sooth — when a whole nation not only forgot prayer but denied God, and throned a courtesan as the Goddess of Reason and the ruling power of the universe?"


[12] Washington's Own Words: "First Wish of my Heart!"

Washington Avowed God's Blessing

There you have them — two traditions about "The Prayer of Valley Forge." Apparently there is a lack of the authentication with which the historian seeks to monument his recordings in all the solemnity of established fact.

Yet, why, it may be asked, should people of a Christian nation, professing a trust in the Supreme Being,

> > proclaiming that profession even on the minted coin of barter and trade,

> > inscribing it on their secular and legal documents,

> > displaying an allegorical plaque on their Sub-Treasury in New York depicting the actual scene of the prayer

— why, it seems pertinent to inquire, should they discard that faith in one more tradition which places the great and lonely Man of Valley Forge as the centerpiece of an act that indicates a profession of faith in the efficacy of prayer?

Is it not reasonable to believe that a man who had, on frequent occasions, paid homage publicly to the God of all nations and earnestly exhorted his soldiers and his fellow countrymen to "express our grateful acknowledgements to God, for the manifold blessings he has granted to us," may have sought seclusion for his own private communion with the Father?

Surely the evidence of Washington's faith is sufficiently established to satisfy a layman, if not an historian.

General Washington called for a general thanks to God for December 18, 1777, as provided by Congressional resolution - but more to the point are his words written to the Rev. Israel Evans, Chaplain to Poor's New Hampshire Brigade.

Chaplain Evans had caused his sermon, as delivered at Gulph Mills the day before the entry into Valley Forge, to be printed by Francis Bailey at Lancaster and one of these imprints reached Washington March 12, 1778.

From Headquarters, Valley Forge, the next day, March 13, Washington wrote Mr. Evans as follows:

"Revd. Sir: Your favor of the 17th. Ulto., inclosing the discourse which you delivered on the 18th. of December; the day set a part for a general thanksgiving; to Genl. Poors' Brigade, never came to my hands till yesterday.

"I have read this performance with equal attention and pleasure, and at the same time that I admire, and feel the force of the reasoning which you have displayed through the whole, it is more especially incumbent upon me to thank you for the honorable, but partial mention you have made of my character;

and to assure you, that it will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavors to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that all wise and powerful Being on whom alone our success depends; and moreover, to assure you, that with the respect and regard, I am, etc."

Is it too hard to believe a man who sets down in writing the first wish of his heart is "to inculcate a due sense of the dependence we ought to place in that All wise and powerful Being on whom alone our Success depends," may have sought Divine Guidance, through prayer, in the darkest hour of the conflict for human rights?

Above all else at Valley Forge Washington held to his faith, and prayer was an essential of his belief —

> > whether vocal in the wooded tract,

> > silent in the stable stall,

> > on bended knee at the bedside or

> > in concert with associates at public service.

It is well for men's souls to feel that a leader of men sought and obtained guidance from the Son of Man.



COPYRIGHT (c) 1977 Cambridge Theological Seminary

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