George Washington did not write the prayer illegally recited by Robin Bartlett Frazier Thursday morning, March 27, at the opening of a board budget meeting in Carroll County, Maryland. A lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Society and four other individuals resulted in a ruling by a federal judge on Tuesday, March 25, that placed a preliminary injunction on the Board of Commissioners. The commissioners were ordered to stop opening meetings with prayers that reference a specific deity associated with any specific belief. In this case Jesus Christ and Christian beliefs were being represented in prayer even though our country, including Carroll County, has citizens representing every religion and non-religion under the sun. The official who issued the ruling is Judge William D. Quarles Jr. of the U.S. District Court of Maryland.
According to American Humanist Robin Frazier chose to defy the court ruling by reading a prayer which she and other Christians mistakenly believe was written by George Washington. The prayer begins, “O Lord our God, most mighty and merciful father, I thine unworthy creature and servant, do once more approach thy presence.” The prayer goes on to say that the supplicant is unworthy due to “natural corruptions” and “many sins and transgressions.” The prayer twice mentions Jesus Christ by name and once as the son of God.
Frazier repeated the erroneous belief that the prayer was written by George Washington as she introduced it saying, “This might be a good opportunity to demonstrate how our founding fathers, and leaders all throughout our history, have upheld the idea that we are a nation based on biblical principles. We’re one nation under God and I believe that’s where our unalienable rights come from.”
Commissioner Frazier was obviously aware that she may be charged with contempt of court. She proclaimed her willingness to go to jail in a tearful speech. However, she does not seem to be aware of the fact that the prayer was not written by George Washington, which makes her statement about our founding fathers incorrect and irrelevant.
The prayer comes from a book titled “The Daily Sacrifice” even though it is commonly referred to by Christians as “Washington’s Prayer Journal.” It is claimed that the book is a product of Washington’s youth, up to age twenty.
The original hand written document numbers twenty four pages in a pocket memo book. Nothing on the document indicates it is written by George Washington. A descendant of George Washington, Lawrence Washington, found the prayer in an old trunk in 1890. He gave specialists and expert historians a chance to examine the document.
According to The Humanist, historian Franklin Steiner had this to say about the document, “Worthington C. Ford, who had handled more of Washington’s manuscripts than any other man except Washington himself, declared that the penmanship was not that of Washington.” Steiner also noted that while George Washington was a notoriously bad speller, the hand written prayer had zero spelling mistakes.
The Smithsonian Institute had a chance to examine the writing sample as well. They analyzed the handwriting as well as other elements and rejected the claim that it was written by George Washington. Dr. W.A. Croffutt, a Washington D.C. newspaper correspondent, also found evidence that debunks the claim that George Washington wrote the prayer. Croffutt was able to trace the prayer back to the reign of English King James I, who died 107 years before George Washington was born.
None of this evidence matters to Robin Frazier or the Philadelphia auctioneer, Stan V. Henkels, who claimed the prayer was written by George Washington in the catalog of sale for an 1891 auction of Washington family relics. Henkel claimed that the prayer was written in Washington’s handwriting. As The Humanist points out, “From that time on, assorted Christian apologists have argued for the work’s authenticity and it has been published in both facsimile and print form.”
The prayer attributed to Washington was first printed by William Herbert Burk in Washington’s Prayers (1907). George Washington was incorrectly given credit for this prayer again in a 1919 book by William J. Johnson in his book Washington the Christian. This book is still available from devotional publishers.
A more recent source concerning George Washington’s religious views, Religion and George Washington, was written in 2005 by Frank Grizzard Jr. In his examination of the prayers attributed to Washington Grizzard comes to the following conclusion. “Tens of thousands of genuine Washington manuscripts have survived to the present, including many from the youthful Washington, and even a cursory comparison of the prayer book with a genuine Washington manuscript reveals that they are not the same handwriting. Nevertheless, the prayers continue to be disseminated under Washington’s name.”
Even historians in Carroll County don’t buy the claim that Washington wrote the prayer. John Fea, history department chair at Messiah College told the Carroll County Times, “The prayer is far too pious for Washington. In fact, George Washington only referenced Jesus Christ twice in all his extant writings and neither of them were in a prayer.”
Even if the prayer delivered by Commissioner Frazier had been written by George Washington this would not change the legal situation. The Humanist points out, “A continuous habit of delivering specifically Christian prayers at government meetings creates a hostile environment for non-Christian citizens, be they believers in other religions or nonbelievers.”
Monica Miller, an attorney for the American Humanist Association, agrees. She told The Humanist, “Non-Christians, who are necessarily excluded by such sectarian Christian prayers, feel like religious outsiders and second-class citizens in their own community.”