Rewriting of History
by Madalyn Murray O'Hair
(with Sherman Wakefield)
February 17, 1969
edited by Cliff Walker
Probably the single thing which angers Atheists more then any other practice of Christianity is the insistence the religious community of Christians has on bending the facts of history to conform with their ideas and beliefs.
Sherman Wakefield, who is married to Robert Ingersoll's granddaughter, has undertaken a study of some of the specific instances when such liberties have been taken with history itself. He became particularly aroused at President Eisenhower at one point, and wrote a short rebuttal to one of the president's activities:
On Washington's birthday, President and Mrs. Eisenhower attended services in Christ Episcopal Church of Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington was a vestryman and occupied pew number sixty. The service was conducted by the Reverend Braxton Bragg Comer Lile, the rector, who did not tell his congregation that Washington refused to take communion and walked out of the church before each communion service. When taken to task by the Reverend James Abercromie of Philadelphia for this conduct, Washington stayed away from church entirely on communion Sundays. However, according to tradition in the parish church, the Reverend Lile read Washington's so-called "prayer."
Now, this "prayer" has been known to New Yorkers for some years, as it is inscribed in a bronze tablet adjoining the Washington pew in St. Paul's chapel in that city. As a prayer, this is a forgery, as it was made up from a circular letter which General Washington addressed to the governors of the thirteen states upon his disbanding the army, dated Newburg, June 8, 1783.
The "prayer" was manufactured from the last paragraph of Washington's letter by omitting words in the original and replacing them with words of divine petition. The letter was addressed to the respective governors of the states, and not to God, and the original "you" was changed to "thou" in the prayer. The text of the "prayer" follows, with additions in italics:
Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep these United States in Thy holy protection, that Thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens and the United States at large. And finally that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion and without an humble imitation of Whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The original letter from which this "prayer" was manufactured is to be found in W.C. Ford's edition of Washington's Writings (volume 10, pages 254 to 256) and also in the official government edition of Washington's Writings, edited by J.C. Fitzpatrick (Volume 24, pages 483 to 496).
The text of the last paragraph of the original letter follows, and includes the words that the prayer-makers omitted. Again I have these italicized:
Now I make it my earnest prayer that God would have you and the State over which you preside, in His holy protection, that He would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens and the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field, and finally, that He would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. I have the honor to be, with much esteem and respect, Sir, your Excellency's most obedient and most humble servant. George Washington.
Now, the amount of material in this short paragraph which has been omitted and changed to make the "prayer" is about one third of the whole, thus making the "prayer" a real pious fraud. When Washington told the governors that it was his "earnest prayer" he meant, of course, his earnest wish, and his use of the word "prayer" according to the custom of the his day, does not justify forging a letter into a prayer to a deity.
Washington never actually penned any of the thirteen letters to the governors, and they were written by different aides on different days. The copy written on June 8, 1783, as published, was penned by David Cobb. Washington may have made the original dictation, or furnished the ideas expressed in the letters, but they may also have been piously embellished by those who wrote them, after the custom of those times. In any event, the last phrase of the "prayer," which is similar to the Episcopal prayer book, is not in Washington's style and nowhere else in his writings does he mention Jesus Christ by name.
The fact of this forgery has been pointed out to the officials of the St. Paul's Chapel and Trinity Church many times in past years, but the bronze tablet remains in the church, and, in addition, the "payer" is inscribed on a large framed background which rests in the Washington pew and is much easier to read than the tablet itself. This is all in spite of the fact that in 1935 a group of Atheists sued Trinity Church for capitalizing on a fraud, during which suit the alteration was admitted, but was justified as making the quotation "appropriate for display and distribution in a place of worship."
This by a leading representative of Christianity which claims to be the arbiter of our morality.
Sherman Wakefield spends much of his time tracing down some of the forgeries in American history which the churches have perpetuated, and he gets more and more furious with each one he uncovers. And so do we all. He became quite incensed over Abraham Lincoln's alleged letter to Mrs. Bixby. He began to trace the original letter and readily found several facsimiles -- only to discover that there were several variations in the handwriting, and discrepancies in the formation of single letters and entire words between the two. Mr. Wakefield has facsimiles of three of these letters, all with differences in handwriting and text, and he queries, "If facsimiles from a supposed original document do not agree among themselves, which one, if any, is correct?" The two most famous copies stemmed from one Michael F. Tobin, a dealer in pictures and prints in New York City, who applied to the Librarian of Congress for a copyright on a facsimile on April 25, 1891. This was about thirty years after the letter was written. Later, in the same year, Huber's Museum, which dealt in a collection of freaks and fakes of various kinds, started to exhibit a document which was claimed to be the original.
The letter was supposed to have been written on November 21, 1864, and sent directly to Adjutant General Schouler in Boston, who delivered it in person to Mrs. Bixby on November 25th. Mrs. Bixby is said to have lost five sons in the Civil War. Yet strangely, a search of the records reveals that two of them were killed in battle (Charles and Oliver), one was honorably discharged (Henry), and two deserted to the enemy (Edward and George). The Bixby letter is much quoted because in it, Lincoln, who was known as a non-believer in religion, was purportedly to have said, "I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement."
The battle over these letters has been long and enduring and the authenticity of the three quite different facsimiles of the original letter has not been a barrier to the Christian community's intent endeavors to authenticate this as a true Lincoln letter, and after its having found its way into a number of Lincoln's collected works, the stamp of authority is now upon the letter.
Completely ignored are three rather striking documents. One, written by Dr. Nicolas Murray Butler, a president of Columbia University, in which was recounted a story giving the authorship of this letter to a Lincoln secretary, John Hay; the second document is a letter from Rev. Gildart Arthur Jackson, in which it is recounted that Lincoln had instructed Hay to write a suitable letter of condolence and that Hay had done so. Herndon, a Lincoln friend, recounts that Lincoln once made him erase the word 'God' from a speech which he had written because the language indicated a personal god, whereas Lincoln "insisted no such personality ever existed." In the original drafts of the Gettysburg Address, twice Lincoln wrote out that speech without mention of this nation "under God," an insertion later suggested by Salmon P. Chase, a member of his cabinet.
We wish our Christian brothers would be honest and permit us our heroes. We do not deny them theirs.