John Gano, from the New York Public Library, image number 1241539Although George Washington was baptized into the Anglican Church by sprinkling as an infant on April 5, 1732, descendants of the Baptist chaplain John Gano (1727-1804) claimed that Washington asked Gano to baptize him by immersion at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Despite Gano’s descendants attesting to the veracity of the story through signing affidavits and Washington’s baptism allegedly occurring in front of forty-two witnesses, no evidence has yet been discovered to confirm the account.

The legend begins with the grandchildren of John Gano, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York and an army chaplain for the Americans during the Revolutionary War. They signed affidavits in the 1870s and 1880s attesting to the following story. During the harsh winter at Valley Forge (1777/1778), George Washington asked John Gano to immerse him in the icy water of the nearby Schuylkill River. As time progressed, the details relating to Washington’s baptism changed. One contributing factor to the development of the legend was when a Manhattan pastor named E.T. Sanford commissioned a painting in 1908 showing Gano baptizing Washington in the Potomac River (nowhere near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania). After residing in a church in New Jersey for a while, in 1926, the painting moved to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, at the urging of Gano’s great-granddaughter. She donated money for the Baptist-affiliated college to name a chapel after John Gano and display the painting there. The presence of the painting at the college inspired an author to write an article for the Bulletin of William Jewell College that stridently defended the authenticity of Gano’s baptism of Washington. Today, as then, the college does not comment on whether or not the baptism legend is true.

Finally, in 1932, Time magazine provided even more provocative details to the legend. Drawing from a recent publication The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883 (Museum of the American Revolution)written by the Sigma Nu fraternity, Time recounted to their national audience that Washington once said to Gano: “I have been investigating the Scripture, and I believe immersion to be baptism taught in the Word of God, and I demand it at your hands. I do not wish any parade made or the army called out, but simply a quiet demonstration of the ordinance.”1 Even though the ceremony was to be kept quiet, forty-two people still observed Washington’s immersion in the Potomac River.

Concerning the reliability of the account of Washington’s baptism, many scholars, including scholars of Baptist history, contend that the baptism legend is most likely false. For instance, Franklin Steiner and Rupert Hughes have pointed out that Gano was not a chaplain under Washington but General Clinton. He also never went to Valley Forge during the freezing winter of 1777/1778 or mentioned baptizing Washington in his own memoirs. Moreover, no written accounts exist from the forty-two alleged onlookers at Washington’s baptism. Nevertheless, the baptism legend was quite popular then and continues to be popular among some Americans today since they use the story to prove that Washington practiced Christianity in a rather open and active fashion and helps lend credence to arguments for a “Christian America.”

Jacob Hicks, Ph.D. Candidate

Florida State University

 

Notes:

1. "Washington's Baptism," Time, September 5, 1932, 36.

 

Bibliography:

Gano, John and Stephen Gano. Biographical Memoirs of the Late Rev. John Gano, of Frankfurt, Kentucky, Formerly of the City of New York. New York: Printed by Southwick and Hardcastle for J. Tiebout, 1806.

Hughes, Rupert. In "Letters." Time, September 26, 1932.

Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory. New York: Harper, 2011.

Steiner, Franklin. The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: From Washington to F.D.R. Amherst, NY: Promethius Books, 1995.

Thompson, Mary V. "Into the Hands of a Good Providence": Religion in the Life of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

 

 

 

 

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