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What George Washington Didn’t Say about Barack Obama in the Relief Society Magazine, the Saints’ Herald, or Even the Millennial Star

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 23, 2008

(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.

Washington’s Vision
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?

Nope.

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.)



34 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the heads up on the newest spam!

    I think the point you bring up is valid. So many times hearsays, urban legends and so forth are brought into Church settings, passed off as truth for the sake of “proving” a particular point or agenda of the one perpetuating it.

    BTW: Ardis, have you ever considered working for Snopes?

    Comment by Steve C. — September 23, 2008 @ 7:27 am

  2. She should. This is a much better write-up than the one on snopes. Their “research” doesn’t even come close to being as conclusive as this.

    Comment by Researcher — September 23, 2008 @ 7:39 am

  3. Nice write-up! Thanks for your research efforts. By the way, since I’m blessed not to be on anti-Obama (or anti-McCain) e-mail lists, I’m just curious: what was the particular Mormon flavor of the e-mail you received?

    Comment by Bro. Jones — September 23, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  4. I have to say I am really impressed. I wish I could do what you do. I’ll take this in a decidedly different direction than politics.
    I have recently heard many apocalyptic visions attributed to various Mormon sources; John Taylor being the most common. I have always assumed they shared the same provenance issues the White Horse prophesy had; i. e. not recorded by the source and not at the time it was given. Sometimes it gets written down only decades later. Since you were so good at tracking this one, would you have an interest in tracking the provenance of other non-scriptural “prophesies” attributed to Mormon leaders? If so, how about considering the most common John Taylor one I see; The Horseshoe Prophesy?

    As for Obama comment, in politics people will say just about anything to get someone to vote a particular way. My undergraduate degree is in politics, but I had to get out. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

    Comment by BruceC — September 23, 2008 @ 7:52 am

  5. Thanks, all. This was fun, I think in part because I was already familiar with the “Vision” and maybe had been rolling it around in the back of my mind for a while. That always seems to help in solving puzzles, rather than attacking something cold as soon as I see it. I read about the Horseshoe Prophecy recently (on JI?), so maybe it’s rolling around back there, too, and when I run across something that serves as a way into the puzzle, I’ll be alert to it.

    Bro. Jones, the email (which I marked as spam and has already been deleted from my mailbox — I was thinking this morning that I should have saved it, so when it comes your way, forward me a copy, please) has an introduction about how the Founding Fathers were inspired, and how we should be open to “true revelation” no matter through whom it comes, and a few non-specific sentences about how many of the details in “Washington’s Vision” remind the emailer of Obama and his “dangerous policies” that will bring these tribulations on our country, yada yada yada. Then yesterday morning I picked up the box of World War I-era Relief Society Magazines thinking I’d look for some post ideas about the missionaries getting back into Europe after the war, and ran right into the “Vision.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 8:22 am

  6. I must have a really efficient spam-blocker. The only thing I get emails about anymore are notifications that I’ve won yet another lottery I didn’t enter, or that I’ve been chosen by some dying African to be the conduit for millions of dollars from his war-torn land. None of the World Trade Center faith-promoters ever came to my inbox, and none of the anti-Obama testimonials.

    Makes me feel kinda unloved.

    But, thanks Ardis for sharing this one. The first thing that caught my eye was the age–I guess John Allen Paulos was right: most people are mathematically illiterate. All you have to do is run the mental calculator for a second to come up with an improbably young soldier, and then remember all the long stories you were told when you were eight years old (or, better yet, 83 years ago!), and the BS-o-meter should be redlining.

    Besides, all this crap about Washington praying all the time (including that time by the side of the horse at Valley Forge–his little horse must have thought it queer indeed) contradicts everything we know about Washington. It doesn’t, of course, contradict much of the myth.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 23, 2008 @ 8:26 am

  7. Let’s talk about Valley Forge…

    Every time we take visitors to see it, they are severely underwhelmed. It’s a beautiful, lovely, large, peaceful park with lots of cute tame deer, but after a whole lifetime of epic Mormon George Washington mythology including (very significantly) the Arnold Friberg picture, there is simply no way to meet their expectations.

    Do you really need more spam and chain emails, Mark B and Ardis? I can forward you some regularly. Just let me know.

    Comment by Researcher — September 23, 2008 @ 8:46 am

  8. Y’know -

    I keep hearing about the many, many anti-Obama and anit-Palin e-mails that are going around the internet and appear in people’s e-mails daily.

    I never get these. Neither does my wife. My parents do, for some reason.

    Based on this post, I’m rather glad I don’t get them. And if anyone out there wants to start sending them to me – I promise to hate you for doing it.

    Comment by Ivan Wolfe — September 23, 2008 @ 8:53 am

  9. Researcher,

    You need to take them there in winter, kick them out of your car, drive off to King of Prussia and hang out in the mall for several hours, and refuse to answer your cell phone.

    Even better if you can send them out barefoot and coatless, in a snowstorm.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 23, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  10. I can hardly wait to hear what you recommend for the proper modern appreciation of Haun’s Mill! Can I sell tickets?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  11. I haven’t seen this email yet, but I suspect my brother-in-law will forward it any day now in an effort to save me from myself.

    And Ardis, I dub thee the Queen of Provenance! Long may you reign!

    Comment by kevinf — September 23, 2008 @ 11:09 am

  12. Not many things leave me speechless. This one (the e-mail application) does.

    Comment by Ray — September 23, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  13. Ardis, you are amazing.

    But I wondered if this was authentic from the beginning. I believe angelic visitors are generally male, no? (*ducks*)

    Comment by m&m — September 23, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  14. Hence my insertion of the bracketed “[feminine]” — a secret tip-off to the alert! (*ducking with you*)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  15. Sad thing, is, though, that Ardis went to the library to check out Toujours Provence, and the semi-deaf assistant brought her Toujours Provenance instead, and she’s been stuck there ever since.

    Heck, my dad spent a tour (summer 1945) in Provence, and he didn’t think it was all that great. So don’t feel bad, Ardis.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 23, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  16. That explains it — I’ve been trying to figure out what “herbes de provenance” were, and all I could come up with were cobwebs, mildew, and bookworms.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

  17. LOL “herbes de provenance” had me laughing out loud.

    Comment by BruceC — September 23, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  18. The date of the first publication of this fiction is also telling: 24 June 1861. By that time, eleven southern states had seceded, the government of the Confederate States of America had been established, Fort Sumter had fallen and Confederate and Union armies were gathering near Washington. (The First Battle of Bull Run was still a month away.)

    And the word on the angel’s brow: Union. If there was a word in the American public’s mind in 1861, it would have been Union. (Not for nothing were the U.S. forces during the Civil War called the Union armies. Or that Lincoln was forever speaking of his duty to preserve the Union. Or that the Lincoln-Johnson ticket three years later was called the National Union Party.) But union was a long way from most people’s minds in 1777–there was at that time no formal constitution binding the 13 colonies–the articles of confederation weren’t adopted until 1778. And though those articles did provide for a “perpetual union” of the states, there were substantial differences of opinion as to what that meant–see the provisions of the articles themselves, and the debates over the ratification of the constitution 10 years later, for example.

    Of course, I guess the angel would have known how to speak in a language that would resonate four score years later.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 23, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  19. Sorry, Ardis, but you and all the debunkers are wrong!!! I found a website that proves it:

    This is NOT a hoax as some are saying!
    It is Recorded at the Library of Congress
    It is verified by many others

    What need have we for further witnesses?

    Comment by Mark B. — September 23, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

  20. As we all keep looking from different angles and seeing new ways in which “Washington’s Vision” is so obviously what it is, it becomes harder and harder for me to understand how anybody can take it seriously. In 1861, sure; it was a literary device meeting political needs and artistic expectations. But as often as it has been reprinted? Its use today? Have you Googled to see how many times it appears? Who are these people?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  21. I hadn’t seen your #19 before I posted my #20 Mark. I take it all back. I am convinced!

    (Is its LoC call number anywhere near the Joseph Smith daguereotypes?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  22. OK, for a totally random and inappropriate comment:

    When I read “herbes de provenance”, my brain said “herpes de provenance” – which is not an insignificant change.

    Comment by Ray — September 23, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  23. So how do you get “herpes de provenance”? Maybe by accepting the “proof” offered on the website Mark B found (#19).

    Comment by BruceC — September 23, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  24. I think that you will also find “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the Library of Congress, but that in no way means that its accusations and calumny are true. Even Tsar Nikolai II recognized immediately that it was a bogus work. Another work of similar ilk is “Mormonisn Unvailed”, by the notorious Eber D. Howe. Again, this in and of itself, doesn’t prove that it’s scurrilous message possesses a scintilla of veracity. Ardis is absolutely correct, provenance must be unquestionably established before any credence can be given to any document.
    Thank you for this information, Ardis. I had never heard that Washington was inclined to visions and so was skeptical from the outset. However, have you heard the one about one of the Latter-day Prophets having a vision of ‘red dust’ falling from the skies and dead bodies lying in the streets of Salt Lake City as a result? I believe that this is either attributed to John Taylor or Wilford Woodruff. One of my equally skeptical friends from my BYU days thought that it was likely a strong south wind carrying the pollution from the Geneva Steel Works northwards into the Salt Lake Valley. Since the smelters have been sold and moved to the People’s Republic of China, I guess we have dodged the bullet on that one.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — September 23, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  25. Not to give Ray’s comment any more attention than it deserves ;-) but some of these urban legends and fake prophecies are very much like viruses.

    Virus: an infective agent that … is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.

    Herpes (the George Washington prophecy) is a virus that affects the skin (politics, perhaps) or nervous system (maybe religion).

    One kind of herpes virus is chicken pox, also called varicella, and after the original infection (the publication of the “prophecy” in c 1861), it can live quietly within the nervous system for years before breaking out and causing the horrible rash and other side effects of shingles (its use as a club in the 2008 presidential election).

    Comment by Researcher — September 24, 2008 @ 5:16 am

  26. Wow, Researcher, I am impressed.

    Comment by Ray — September 24, 2008 @ 9:04 am

  27. Velikiye Kniaz (#24) I found that one about bodies in the streets too. It claims to be in Wilford Woodruff’s journal where he records a vision John Taylor had. Double the prophets means double the credibility. There is even a video version on YouTube. I won’t create a link here since I think it is nothing but a “virus”.

    Comment by BruceC — September 24, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  28. Thanks for your discretion, Bruce — I don’t want to be a clearinghouse for breathless endtimes rumors, although it’s fine to acknowledge how many of them exist within our own corner of the culture, never mind in broader Christianity.

    It’s that kind of “prophesy” I think too many people have in mind as “meat” when they complain about being fed “milk” at Sunday School. Dunno for sure why so many people are attracted to that, but it’s clear there’s a substantial market for it, and always has been (gnosticism, anyone?).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 24, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  29. Let’s talk about Valley Forge…

    Every time we take visitors to see it, they are severely underwhelmed.

    I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday afternoon there (quiet, lazy) while in the area on a business trip in April.

    I thought it was great. If you’re not rushed, it’s a very enjoyable time (I checked out all of the little cottages and the signs and whatnot).

    Comment by queuno — September 24, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  30. Queuno (#29) I love doing that. I travel a bit in my profession and when ever I get the time (and if there is any daylight) I find the local historic sites and “browse”. Valley Forge has not made it on my list of “already visited” but hopfully it will soon.

    Comment by BruceC — September 24, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  31. Despite my “underwhelmed” comment earlier, if you are in Philadelphia for more than one day and have transportation, Valley Forge is very much worth visiting. (There is a bus line that goes to the visitor’s center, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of how to get around the very large park. Well, I guess you can rent a bike, depending on the season and the weather. Ok, so it could be done without a car.) If you only have one day or part of a day, you would probably want to stay in the city and see our great national icons: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house, and so forth.

    Is this a threadjack?

    Comment by Researcher — September 25, 2008 @ 6:52 am

  32. October? Sure. Everyone come. You can help us rake leaves. You might have to sleep in a tent, though.

    Comment by Researcher — September 25, 2008 @ 7:42 am

  33. And to think I just moved away from Maryland. I lived a little north of Baltimore. I was practically in your back yard. Of course, there was so much to see in Maryland and Virginia I never made it to all the sites in Pennsylvania. So many places. So little time.

    Tents? I think there is a campground at Valley Forge. The BSA uses it for National Jamboree sometimes. We could do it in December, during a snowstorm. You know, to get the feel for it. Maybe have an out of body experience or halucinations visions just like Washington.

    Comment by BruceC — September 25, 2008 @ 8:07 am

  34. Nope. In fact, we’re planning the First Annual Keepa Retreat, to be held in your town in October. You did offer to put us all up at your house, right? And drive us to these sites? Don’t worry — we’ll stay long enough that we can go to BOTH Valley Forge and Philadelphia. Sign-ups are open now, and be sure to give Researcher a detailed list of your dietary preferences, and whether you’re a night owl or early bird.

    (Really, by this point in a thread with a goofy title where we’ve said all that probably can be said about a goofy document, any of us still reading deserve all the fun we can get. There’s no such thing as a threadjack now!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 25, 2008 @ 7:09 am

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