George Washington and Valley Forge: How a Christmas Prayer Saved America

The winter of 1777 should’ve been the end of the great American Revolution.

Everything was going wrong for our patriot forefathers at that time.

Throughout the fall of 1777, the British army had tightened its grip on the colonies. When Philadelphia was captured, the war looked over. It usually is when a capitol city is occupied. Our Continental Congress were now “wanted men” and forced to flee for their lives. Meanwhile, fear raced through the colonies as thousands of Americans were captured and confined on British “starving ships.” Most died on board. It was a trying, desperate time in early America.

On December 12, 1777 the fugitive Congress awarded Gen. George Washington “full power” to “direct…the operations of the war.”

A week later Washington retreated with 11,000 soldiers to Valley Forge, PA to wait for spring…and hopefully better days.

Washington’s rag tag volunteer army enlisted men from ages 12 to 60. Most were Europeans, but free blacks and Indians also served. By Christmas 1777, the weather had turned ugly. The bitter cold and snow proved deadly to man and beast. Horses perished by the hundreds. Over 2500 troops froze, starved or died from typhoid, pneumonia or dysentery. Over 500 women also died at Valley Forge that winter…and countless children too. Families often fought together. Wives kept the army fed, clothed and nursed. And now they were among the dying too.

George Washington noted that nearly 2900 of his men were “unfit for duty.” Most of his troops had no shoes. Many were barely clothed. Washington confessed that without “some great and capital change” his army would “starve, dissolve, or (need to) disperse.” If his army didn’t live to spring, Washington rightly feared their war of revolution was over.

At one point, it was so bad the Continental Congress debated replacing Washington as “commander-in-chief.”

Many politicians had lost faith in George’s abilities, but none of his men did. As one patriot soldier confessed, Washington’s army was fused together with a “spirit of liberty.” They believed in Washington. They believed in this revolution. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

George Washington needed a Christmas miracle in 1777.

And that’s when this man of deep and devout faith turned, once again, to his God. In the bitter cold of Valley Forge, the “Father of our Country” retreated outside of camp, knelt down in the snow and prayed.

Washington’s prayerful pose became one of early America’s most famous images. For nearly 200 years American children were taught how Washington’s prayers at Valley Forge turned the Revolutionary War to our advantage. U.S. Presidents routinely reminded Americans of Washington’s prayer. Artists and sculptors recaptured this prayer. In fact, paintings of Washington praying at Valley Forge were more popular  than his famed crossing of the Delaware. It was common to see this image in homes, schools, courthouses, businesses and churches.

George Washington praying at Valley Forge

George Washington recounted that terrible winter of 1777-1778.

“No history,” he wrote, “can furnish an instance of an army’s suffering such uncommon hardships as ours has done…to see men without clothes to cover their nakedness, without blankets to lay on, without shoes, by which their marched might be traced by the blood from their feet, and almost as often without provisions…marching through frost and snow, and at Christmas taking up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy…is a mark of patience and obedience which…can scarce be paralleled.”

Washington’s desperate prayers and pleas worked.

When Virginia Governor Patrick Henry heard of the conditions at Valley Forge, he was furious. He petitioned Congress to do something immediately…and they did. Within days a new quartermaster had resupplied Washington’s troops with clothing, food, blankets, ammo and other supplies. In February a Prussian drill master arrived to train Washington’s volunteer army to become better soldiers. Morale immediately boosted.

Throughout that terrible winter, particularly at Christmas, a certain carol was sung.

Its opening lyrics stated: God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. This song reminded colonial patriots that God was in control and He alone provided the “rest.” With God on their side, what did they have to fear? Furthermore, they rode with the great George Washington–a patriot general who had already escaped death five times. Horses were shot out beneath him. His hat was shot off. His clothes were nicked and ripped by bullets.

However, a Lutheran clergyman named Henry Muhlenberg was more impressed by George Washington’s spiritual leadership. He wrote: “I heard a fine example today, namely that His Excellency General Washington rode around among his army yesterday and admonished each to fear God, to put away wickedness … and to practice Christian virtues...From all appearances General Washington does not belong to the so-called world of society, for he respects God’s Word, believes in the atonement through Christ, and bears himself in humility and gentleness.”

Muhlenberg concluded: “Therefore, the Lord God has also singularly, yea, marvelously preserved [George Washington] from harm in the midst of countless perils, ambuscades, fatigues, etc., and has hitherto graciously held him in his hand as a chosen vessel.”

George Washington’s leadership and God’s Providence through that desperate winter eventually turned the War to the colonial patriots.

It inspired more patriot soldiers to enlist and lit a new fire under Americans to support the war. What was Washington’s response for God’s Provision at Valley Forge? He ordered a “religious day” of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” on April 22, 1778. Washington commanded all troops in his Continental Army to cease work and go to church for spiritual instruction and worship. Washington proclaimed: “To the distinguished character of patriot, it should be our highest glory to laud the more distinguished Character of Christian.”

America has faced many desperate Christmases since Valley Forge in 1777.  We’ve endured war and Depression, crisis and catastrophe, bitter cold and deadly disease. And yet through each historic trial, and an increasingly secularized culture, most Americans still pause to reflect on the Reason for the Season.

It doesn’t have to be Christmas for us to endure a winter of trial and trouble.

Perhaps Washington’s prayer life should be a model for us? And maybe that old carol that sustained the troops at Valley Forge should become our song?

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.

For Jesus Christ our Savior, was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,

O tidings of comfort and joy.”

1 Comment

  1. Michael Zak on February 19, 2024 at 3:31 pm

    A very good read!

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