What George Washington Didn’t Say about Barack Obama in the Relief Society Magazine, the Saints’ Herald, or Even the Millennial Star
(Keepa is not the place for a discussion of partisan politics, and I appreciate your cooperation in avoiding that kind of discussion, although this post might seem to offer an opening for it.)
The coincidence of yesterday’s receipt of a Mormon-flavored anti-Obama scaremail and my running across an article in the 1917 Relief Society Magazine prompts this exploration of an odd little document I first saw many months ago. If the post is too long, you can safely skip the block quotations.
by Wesley Bradshaw
The last time I ever saw Anthony Sherman was on the 4th of July, 1859, in Independence Square. He was then ninety-one and becoming very feeble; but though so old, his dimming eyes rekindled as he looked at Independence hall, which he said he had come to gaze upon once more before he was gathered home.
“What time is it?” said he, raising his trembling eyes to the clock in the steeple and endeavoring to shade the former with a trembling hand. “What time is it? I can’t see so well as I used to.”
“Half past three.”
“Come, then,” he continued, “let us go into the hall; I want to tell you an incident in Washington’s life – one which no one alive knows of except myself; and if you live you will before long see it verified. Mark me, I am not superstitious, but you will see it verified.”
The old man then told the reporter a story about his Revolutionary War service, claiming he had spent the winter of 1776-77 with Washington at Valley Forge.
Ah! I have often seen the tears coursing down our dear commander’s care-worn cheek, as he would be conversing with a confidential officer about the condition of his poor soldiers. You have doubtless heard the story of Washington going into the thicket to pray. Well, it is not only true, but he used often to pray in secret for aid and comfort from God, the interposition of whose divine providence brought us safely through these dark days of tribulation.
The result of all that prayer was the receipt of a vision, wherein Washington saw “a singularly beautiful [feminine] figure,” who addressed Washington as “Son of the Republic” and showed him three glimpses of the future of the United States of America. Washington related these three visions to Anthony Sherman, who remembered them word for word. One glimpse obviously referred to the Revolution/War of 1812, with the second describing the Civil War. The third part of the vision:
And I beheld the villages and cities of America increase in size and number, till at last they covered all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and their inhabitants became as countless as the stars in heaven, or the sand upon the sea shore.
And again I heard the mysterious voice saying, ‘Son of the Republic – the end of a century cometh – look and learn.’
At this the dark and shadowy angel placed a trumpet to his mouth and blew three distinct blasts, and taking water from the ocean, sprinkled it out upon Europe, Asia and Africa.
Then my eyes looked upon a fearful scene! From each of these countries arose thick black clouds, which soon joined into one; and through this mass gleamed a dark, red light, by which I saw hordes of armed men who, moving with the cloud, marched by land and sailed by the sea to America, which country was presently enveloped in the volume of the cloud. and I dimly saw these vast armies devastate the whole country, and pillage and burn the villages, cities and towns which I had beheld springing up. As my ear listened to the thundering of cannon, clashing of swords, and shouts and cries of the millions in mortal combat, I again heard the mysterious voice saying – ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’ When the voice ceased, the dark, shadowy angel placed his trumpet once more to his mouth, and blew a long and fearful blast.
Instantly, light, as from a thousand suns, shone down from above me, and pierced and broke into fragments the dark cloud which enveloped America. At the same moment I saw the angel upon whose forehead still shone the word Union, and who bore our national flag in one hand, and a sword in the other, descend from heaven, attended by legions of bright spirits. These immediately joined the inhabitants of America, who seemed to take courage, again closed up their ranks and renewed the battle. Again, amid the fearful noise of the conflict, I heard a mysterious voice saying, – ‘Son of the Republic, look and learn.’
As the voice ceased, the shadowy angel, for the last time, dipped water from the ocean and sprinkled it upon America. Instantly the dark cloud rolled back, together with the armies it had brought, leaving the inhabitants of the land victorious.
Then once more I beheld the villages, towns and cities springing up where they had been before, while the bright angel, planting the azure standard he had brought in the midst of them, cried in a loud voice to the inhabitants – ‘While the stars remain and the heavens send down dew upon the earth, so long shall the Republic last.’
And taking from his brow the crown, on which blazed the word Union, he placed it upon the standard, while all the people, kneeling down, said ‘Amen!’
So. Deep breath.
“Washington’s Vision” could understandably appeal to red-blooded Amer’cans, especially those who believe God had a hand in founding and guiding this country. So it’s not too surprising that this “Vision” would appeal to Mormons. And it apparently has.
So far, after a couple of hours search, I find that we printed it in the Millennial Star of 15 May 1876, in the Deseret News on 14 February 1877, in the Relief Society Magazine of February 1917, and in the Salt Lake Telegram on 4 March 1917. It appears in several nutty-seeming books by Idahoan Alva A. Tanner published around 1920, and in an equally shaky book of “scriptural and secular prophecies” published by Mormon Robert W. Smith in 1931 and reprinted in 1968. [Note: No source other than “an old newspaper” is given for any of the Mormon publications; the Millennial Star has a typo dating events to 1849 instead of the 1859 of all other printings, which the Relief Society Magazine repeats.]
We aren’t alone. The RLDS published it in their Saints’ Herald of 4 February 1903, reprinted from their True Latter-day Saints’ Herald of 1 December 1874, where the editor says he thought they had published it even earlier. It may be even more current in that church today; the Community of Christ website publishes a sermon containing the reference
While this nation shall be brought low, and evidently because of transgression, yet for the sake of the righteous, it will not be destroyed. We have this promise in George Washington’s vision received in Valley Forge, Virginia [sic] in the darkest days of the nation’s revolution …
The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite) published it in their Gospel News of March 1952, with the remark that “this is the third time it has appeared in these pages” (I have not tracked down the earlier printings).
It’s also generally understandable why the “Vision” was republished in the 1870s: 1877 would have been the “end of a century” since the Valley Forge encampment. The World War I printings are slightly less understandable, but if you overlook the rah-rah Spanish-American War, World War I was the first serious American military engagement since 1877. Most of the more recent printings are a puzzlement to me (you can Google and find many, many more republishings unrelated to Mormonism). The political spam I received yesterday was nothing more than a cheap partisan linking of Obama to the “Vision’s” statement that “from Africa I saw an ill-omened spectre approaching our land.”
So much for the “Vision,” its appeal to American Mormons, and its current use. The only question left is …
Is “Washington’s Vision” authentic?
It is the patriotic creation of Wesley Bradshaw, a pseudonym for Charles Wesley Alexander. Alexander used his real name for what he considered his primary and serious work in magazine editing and publishing. The Philadelphia man, “one of the most ingenious, resourceful, and energetic of the persons involved in Philadelphia journalism from 1821 into the 1850’s,” according to his biographer, was a colleague of Edgar Allen Poe and a defender of Poe’s post-mortem reputation. He was associated with the Saturday Evening Post, the Gentleman’s Magazine, and Philadelphia’s Daily Chronicle – always using his real name.
Under his pseudonym of “Wesley Bradshaw,” Alexander published heavily fictionalized, sensational and patriotic stories, such as his Angel Agnes, an account of a yellow fever epidemic, his General Sherman’s Indian Spy, The Volunteer’s Roll of Honor: A Collection of the Noble and Praiseworthy Deeds Performed in the Cause of the Union, by the Heroes of the Army and Navy of the United States, and his account of the suicide of single mother Lavinia M. Roche in Only a Mill Girl. The use of “Wesley Bradshaw” to sign “Washington’s Vision” would seem to be a tip-off that the “Vision” was a fictional if well-intentioned account.
Despite the wide publication of “Washington’s Vision,” including innumerable appearances on the Internet, I have been unable to find anyone who points toward any kind of corroboration of such a vision in Washington’s writings or in the reminiscences of his colleagues. Under the premise that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” this is not proof that Washington had no vision. However, there is apparently no record confirming such an experience.
How about the old soldier, Anthony Sherman, who supposedly conveyed the account to “Wesley Bradshaw” on the Fourth of July, that auspicious – suspiciously auspicious! – date in 1859? First, if he were 91 in 1859, he would have been born in 1768, and would therefore have been all of 8 years old when Washington had his “vision” (to be fair, the account doesn’t say exactly when Washington is supposed to have confided his experience to Sherman). There is an Anthony Sherman who was a Revolutionary soldier, although from New York City rather than Pennsylvania. This old soldier was awarded a pension of $50 per year, which he drew in half-yearly installments through September 1838, the approximate date of his death (U.S. Pensioners, 1831-1850, p. 178 – an image is available on ancestry.com). This man’s pension application is available at the Family History Library (United States. Veterans Administration. Pension files, service records, land warrants, 1775-1913 — film 833,175); although he lists his presence in a number of campaigns and camps as a basis for his claim, he does not mention having been at Valley Forge, but appears to have spent the winter of 1776-77 in upstate New York. There are three Anthony Shermans on the 1840 census; none are old enough to have been Revolutionary soldiers, although the oldest, a Connecticut man, did serve during the War of 1812. Three Anthony Shermans appear on the 1850 census, the oldest having been born about 1805. In other words, there appears to have been no one named Anthony Sherman living in the United States in 1859 who was old enough to have served with Washington. “Anthony Sherman” is, in all likelihood, an entirely fictional person, perhaps a patriotic-sounding composite of Revolutionary General Anthony Wayne and Declaration of Independence signer Roger Sherman.
“Washington’s Vision” was first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 24 June 1861 – not, as some Internet sources have it, in 1859 (that’s the date “Bradshaw” claims to have heard the story from “Anthony Sherman”) and not in some Mormon periodical of 1856, as other Internet sources claim, and patently not in 1880 as still other Internet sources indicate.
Provenance, people. Provenance matters.
Basic honesty matters, too. In its current incarnation – slurring a presidential candidate by linking him to a phony prophecy publishing a pseudonymous author’s imagined conversation with a non-existent witness in a way that is inconsistent with the phony document itself – it is inexcusable.
(And again, thank you for not giving your pro- or anti-Obama political speeches here. This is a Mormon history post, with only the barest tie to the current political campaign. It’s fidelity to historical standards that matters on Keepa, not the candidate.)