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December In Virginia---1774-1777

 

(picture from U.S. National Archives)

 

December in Virginia must always be a reminder to those who live there that our country ought to fervently thank God for the incredible sacrifices of Washington’s army in the winter of 1777!  We read from a brief summary of those wearying days that

Washington led his patriot army to the wintry hills (of Valley Forgenorthwest of Philadelphia in late December 1777, after being defeated at Brandywine (September 11, 1777)....  In so doing, he did more than secure an outpost with a strategic advantage for the work of his army.  He also forged the legacy and character of his nation.  ....(T)he sheer barrenness of the woods and fields of Valley Forge, with its raw exposure to the inclement elements, created a daily and deadly enemy for Washington's half-naked and undersupplied army.  The frigid struggle for survival by the American Army in its "sacred cause" of liberty gave Valley Forge symbolic meaning...1

 

In his 1876 Valley Forge oration Henry Armitt Brown describes in vivid words that awful winter:

The wind is cold and piercing on the old Gulf Road, and the snowflakes have begun to fall.  Who is this that toils up yonder hill, his footsteps stained with blood?  "His bare feet peep through his worn-out shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings, his breeches not enough to cover his nakedness, his shirt hanging in strings, his hair dishevelled, his face wan and thin, his look hungry, his whole appearance that of a man forsaken and neglected."  On his shoulder he carries a rusty gun, and the hand that grasps the stock is blue with cold.  His comrade is no better off, nor he who follows, for both are barefoot, and the ruts of the rough country road are deep and frozen hard.  A fourth comes into view, and still another.  A dozen are in sight.  Twenty have reached the ridge, and there are more to come.

Are these soldiers that huddle together and bow their heads as they face the biting wind?  Is this an army that comes straggling through the valley in the blinding snow?  No martial music leads them in triumph into a captured capital.  No city full of good cheer and warm and comfortable homes awaits their coming.  No sound keeps time to their steps save the icy wind rattling the leafless branches and the dull tread of their weary feet on the frozen ground.  In yonder forest must they find their shelter, and on the northern slope of these inhospitable hills their place of refuge.2

But, as incredible as it may seem that men could endure such miserable circumstances, how shall we respond but with amazement when we learn that "a day of thanksgiving, yes, thanksgiving, were to be observed in the middle of this very time of suffering on orders from the Continental Congress.  As the army at Valley Forge was preparing for their winter trial and survival, Congress’ proclamation reached Washington who, on December 17th, 1777, issued the following order:

Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutely to express our grateful acknowledgments to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in its present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and Brigades.  And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.

Providentially, (one of Washington’s favorite words), it was on this very day when Washington and his army were honoring God with their thanksgiving that France signed their treaty to cooperate with the newly formed united States of America.  Washington and his troops, however,  didn’t learn of this until February 6th, 1778.  Is the Valley Forge experience worth remembering?

As we sit comfortably warm in our homes this month it is difficult to comprehend such devotion as our Founders had for our God, the Sovereign God of the universe.  This ought not, nevertheless, surprise us when we realize that the Revolutionary War, fought for the protection of our liberties, was begun with prayers to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.   Peter Lillback tells us:

Unaccustomed as most Americans have become to the beliefs of our founders, it may be a surprise to learn that America was begun in prayer.  If that's a surprise to us, it was not to Washington, because he was there.  Remembering this fact helps to explain why Washington saw his Army as the champions of a "sacred cause."  To set the stage for Valley Forge, we need to go back a little over three years and consider America's first step toward independence begun in Philadelphia at Carpenter's Hall.  The First Continental Congress could not meet at the Pennsylvania State House, today called Independence Hall, because their discussions were viewed as too radical for the Pennsylvania legislature, which was loyal to the King.  So the local carpenters' guild shared their newly constructed building, Carpenter's Hall.  When the American delegates gathered, they knew why they had come - to address the crisis that had begun in Boston.  But how should they go about their work?

The Congress decided that its first official act would be to open in prayer.  This was not a simple decision, as can be seen in John Adams' letter to his wife Abigail, written from Philadelphia on September, 16, 1774:

"...When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with prayer.  It was opposed by Mr. Jay, of New York, and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship.  Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.  He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the Congress, tomorrow morning.  The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative.  "Mr. Randolph, our president, waited on Mr. Duche, and received for an answer that if his health would permit he certainly would.  Accordingly, next morning he appeared with his clerk and in his pontificals, and read several prayers in the established form; and then read the Collect for the seventh day of September, which was the thirty-fifth Psalm.  You must remember this was the next morning after we heard the horrible rumor of the cannonade of Boston. I never saw a greater effect upon an audience." 

It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning. 

...After this Mr. Duche, unexpected to everybody, struck out into an extemporary prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present.  I must confess I never heard a better prayer, or one so well pronounced.  Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself (Dr. Samuel Cooper, well known as a zealous patriot and pastor of the church in Brattle Square, Boston) never prayed with such fervor, such earnestness and pathos, and in language so elegant and sublime -- for America, for the Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the town of Boston.  It has had an excellent effect upon everybody here .... Dr. Jacob Duche's prayer in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia given at the first meeting of the First Continental Congress in September, 1774 says, 

Our Lord, our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of Kings, Lord of Lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon the earth, and reignest with power supreme and, uncontrolled over all kingdoms, empires, and governments, look, down in mercy, we beseech thee, upon these American States who have fled to Thee from the rod of the Oppressor, and thrown themselves upon Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only upon Thee.  To Thee have they appealed for the righteousness of their cause. To Thee do they now look up for that countenance and support which Thou alone canst give.  Take them, therefore, Heavenly Father, under Thy nurturing care.  Give them wisdom in council and valor in the field.  Defeat the malicious design of our cruel adversaries.  Convince them of the unrighteousness of their cause, and if they still persist in their sanguinary purpose, O let the voice of Thine own unerring justice, sounding in their hearts, constrain them to drop their weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle.  Be Thou present, O Lord of Wisdom, and direct the Council of the honorable Assembly.  Enable them to settle things upon the best and surest foundation, that the scene of blood may speedily be closed; that order, harmony, and peace may effectually be restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety, prevail and flourish amongst Thy people.  Preserve the health of their bodies, the vigor of their minds.  Shower down upon them, and the millions they here represent, such temporal blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come.  All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Savior. Amen.3

Continuing Mr. Lillback’s story we read,

“Washington was part of this Congressional prayer meeting. In 1875, the Library of Congress produced a placard that summarized various reports from the founders on the impact that this first prayer had on the Continental Congress. It reads,

Washington was kneeling there, and Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay, and by their side there stood, bowed in reverence, the Puritan Patriots of New England, who at that moment had reason to believe that an armed soldiery was wasting their humble households.  It was believed that Boston had been bombarded and destroyed.  They prayed fervently 'for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston,' and who can realize the emotion with which they turned imploringly to Heaven for Divine interposition and - "lt was enough" says Mr. Adams, "to melt a heart of stone.  I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, Pacific Quakers of Philadelphia."4

Step outside; feel the cold December wind on your face; look up-and join me in a prayer of thanks for our Founders and the loving kindness of our heavenly Father.


Footnotes:

1. Peter A. Lillback, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Providence Forum Press, Pennsylvania, P. 377  (Back to article)

2. Brown, Rev. Henry Armitt Brown, quoted in The Christian History of the American Revolution, compiled by Verna M. Hall, FACE pub.  (Back to article)

3. Lillback, Ibid, P. 604.  (Back to article)

4. Ibid, p. 381  (Back to article)


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