Chapter Five: The Churches at Valley Forge

It was Washington's Birthday 1903 and the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk, rector of All Saints' Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, was delivering his sermon. His subject was of course George Washington, whom he identified as a dedicated churchman—a vestryman and warden in his own Truro parish. The rector argued that Washington's greatness was the product of his religious nature, something the rector described as a rare quality in "that dark age of Deism which welcomed the cheap infidelity of 'Tom' Paine" and the "selfish maxims of Poor Richard." [1]

In Burk's mind was a vision, the inspiring image of a solitary and steadfast Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge and placing his trust in God during one of his life's darkest hours. The rector urged his congregation:

Would that there we might rear the wayside chapel, fit memorial of the Church's most honored son, to be the Nation's Bethel for all days to come, where the American patriot might kneel in quest of that courage and that strength to make all honorable his citizenship here below, and prove his claim to that above! [2]

The chapel that did eventually rise at Valley Forge would give Burk the lifetime job of defending Washington's religious nature against those who questioned whether Washington had been the ideal churchman. In his 1903 sermon, Burk declared, "No accusations of the modern self-appointed iconoclast, who would discount the religion of him whom we honor, can make us forget either the evidences of his private devotions nor the records of public worship." [3] In later years, Burk would carefully comb through Washington's writings, picking out sixty prayers and benedictions. Did the spot have to be marked on the Duportail map for people to believe that Washington had knelt in the snow? he would ask sarcastically. [4] Burk would never claim that he knew the precise place or the exact circumstances, but he had faith that, somewhere on the slopes of Mount Joy, Washington had indeed sought God's help for his army. [5]

In early 1903, the wayside chapel at Valley Forge existed only in Burk's mind, but in a memoir she wrote of her husband's work at Valley Forge, Eleanor Burk recalled that immediately after his Washington's Birthday sermon the initial step was taken to make his dream come true. The boys and girls of Burk's congregation took up his cause and pledged the first $100 for the Washington Memorial Chapel. [6]

W. Herbert Burk was born in 1867, son of the Rev. Jesse Y. Burk, who was rector of Old Saint Peter's in Clarksboro, New Jersey. Burk attended the Philadelphia Divinity School of the Protestant Episcopal Church and also received a bachelor's degree in divinity from the University of Pennsylvania. After being ordained in 1894, he became rector of the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, New Jersey, then moved on to Saint John's in Norristown and then to All Saints'. He married twice, the first time to Abbie Jessup Reeves, who died in 1907, and the second time to Eleanor Hallowell Stroud.

Photographs and portraits show that Burk had a round baby face, a physical feature that masked the iron determination of this man who met challenges head-on. During a freak snowstorm one Easter Sunday, he forced his car through deep snow on the road from the Washington Memorial Chapel to Port Kennedy, blazing a trail that parishioners could follow to church. [7] After he decided that his parish at Valley Forge needed a cemetery, he was once observed driving a mule team to finish the grading. [8] Sometimes Burk's physical strength failed to match his will—there are allusions in the parish records to illness caused by overwork and nervous disorders. Some contemporaries complained that Burk was never fully esteemed. A writer for the Norristown Herald contended, "[Burk] is a lonely figure, in attempting almost single-handed to do a work every patriot should assist in doing. . . . His efforts have not as yet been appreciated." [9]

Burk claimed that the initial inspiration for a wayside chapel at Valley Forge came to him one day when he took his Norristown choir boys there for an outing. They made their visit in pre-Pennypacker days, when the park was still forlorn and neglected. They started their tour at Fort Washington— then an overgrown mound identified only by a signboard. They saw Valley Creek with its covered bridge, and pushed uphill through thick undergrowth until they stumbled over the entrenchments on Mount Joy, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to keep their spirits up. Burk decided to make a short speech but was ashamed to discover that he knew so little about Valley Forge. He gave the boys Valley Forge's traditional spiritual message, "the message of Divine strength and comfort, of victory through suffering, of achievement through prayer" (as he later remembered it). [10] The outing convinced Burk that Valley Forge was in danger of grievous misuse: it was well on its way to becoming a picnic ground, a highly inappropriate role for the place where he believed some 3,000 American patriots had died and lay buried. He later wrote:

Their dust makes it hallowed ground, as the blood from their frozen feet made the Old Gulph Road, up which the defeated army marched to Valley Forge, the Via Sacra of the American people. To trample this ground in thoughtless levity, or boisterous sport is a desecration of their graves, an insult to their memory, and a crime against the Republic which their sacrifices won for us. [11]

Michael Kammen speaks of a trend beginning in the late eighteenth century in which "nationalism and political ideology started to supplant, at least partially, a role that religion had customarily fulfilled in our culture." [12] By the 1880s and 1890s he states, people increasingly turned to history rather than religion for inspiration, thus blurring the dividing line between the two. Many sermons used examples from history, while historical pageants assumed religious overtones. [13] In Burk's mind a church at Valley Forge would make sense as a special kind of memorial emphasizing the sacred nature of the reserved land and engendering a respect appropriate for the place. At a time when the park commission was offering no active interpretation of the Valley Forge experience, a church pulpit was also a vehicle through which that message could be distilled and promulgated in conformity with the tenets of the Protestant religion, then considered the official religion of America by its largely Protestant leaders.

Despite his determination, Burk did not accomplish all that he had planned because most Americans viewed Valley Forge as a place neither completely sacred nor secular. Burk took on his task apparently without the full support of his own superiors in the Episcopal church. An author who knew Burk recalled:

The bishop of the diocese could see no reason for erecting a chapel in a place where there were few people; and, above all things, a chapel which, before it was finished, might cost—millions. He smiled benevolently, as is the habit of bishops, and put his ecclesiastical foot down. Both feet. So did everyone else whom Dr. Burk consulted, that is to say, everyone who could by any chance have assisted him in this undertaking, among them the writer of this paper. Then people having neither judgement, experience, nor money came to his assistance—and made his work more difficult. It is altogether possible that, without the example of Washington himself, Dr. Burk might never have overcome the obstacles which confronted him. [14]

Burk's efforts followed an earlier attempt to found a church at Valley Forge that had met with even less success. In 1885, Baptist minister James M. Guthrie began raising funds for a new church on the site of an old Valley Forge chapel or meetinghouse thought to have been in use before the Revolution. [15] In July 1886, new foundations were built and a cornerstone was dedicated. Guthrie had plans for a blue marble structure built of blocks cut from the quarries of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Every slab would be inscribed with a name. Each signer of the Declaration of Independence, and each Revolutionary hero of Valley Forge, would have his or her name inscribed on a marble block, as would the modern-day schools and teachers who contributed money. [16]

A year went by and no further construction work was done on the church. Within another year, it was reported that Guthrie was leaving the First Baptist Church in Pottsville to dedicate himself to his project at Valley Forge. [17] He raised money, but two more years passed without visible results. A Bucks County teacher wrote:

He sent circulars to the schools of Bucks County as well as Montgomery, asking for contributions, and promising that for $3 contributed by a school, that school should have its name inscribed on one of the marble blocks of the building, and also that the one giving the highest amount should receive the paper of which he was then editor free for one year. My pupils subscribed $3, and each received only one copy of the paper. I have his receipt for the money, dated April 1, 1887. I have written repeatedly to him in regard to it, but have received no answer. [18]

In 1890, the Philadelphia Baptist Association issued a report restraining Guthrie from receiving any more money for his Valley Forge church until he rendered a satisfactory account of the funds he had so far collected. [19] Guthrie had been promising this information for some time but had failed to provide it, and after the Baptist hierarchy got involved he apparently left the area. Grass grew over the church's foundation, and in 1901 a magazine article noted that the site had fallen into ruin, its cornerstone "used as a target by the gunners who traverse the hills." [20]

Only two years later, Burk began holding services at Valley Forge without a church building. The POS of A lent him its Valley Forge meeting hall, and Burk advertised his first service through handbills and notices in the local papers. On May 17, 1903, just a few months after his Washington's Birthday sermon, Burk preached at Valley Forge. Years later he recalled that his first congregation had consisted of "a woman and baby from Valley Forge and a woman and a boy from Bridgeport." [21] After the POS of A declined the continued use of their hall, Burk moved to Blackburn's Hall in Port Kennedy. [22] He soon acquired his own piece of Valley Forge real estate when I. Heston Todd, who had supposedly been inspired by Burk's Washington's Birthday sermon, donated land then located outside the boundaries of Valley Forge State Park.

June 19, 1903, was the 125th anniversary of the evacuation of Washington's army from Valley Forge. Despite a threat of rain, between 5,000 and 6,000 people attended, including Pennsylvania's new governor, Samuel W. Pennypacker, who gave a stirring speech, then retired with his staff to the Washington Inn. Episcopal Bishop Rt. Rev. O. W. Whitaker, presided at the ceremony to lay the cornerstone for Burk's Washington Memorial Chapel. The bishop formally accepted a deed from I. Heston Todd, and the Rev Dr C. Ellis Stevens of historic Christ Church in Philadelphia spoke of Washington's earnest Christianity. The bishop ceremonially laid the stone in honor of Washington, and all the "patriot churchmen and churchwomen who served their God and country in the struggle for Liberty." [23] Burk would recall that later in the day he returned alone to the church's foundations to empty the cornerstone of its memorial artifacts and transfer them to a safe deposit box. He had no idea whether he would have any more luck than James Guthrie in completing the edifice. [24]

"I planned to build a chapel; I hoped it might become a shrine," Burk wrote. [25] A competition was initiated to select an architect and a design, Warren P. Laird of the University of Pennsylvania's architecture department judged the entries and selected the work of Milton B. Medary Jr., [26] who had been born in Philadelphia in 1874 and had practiced largely in the area. Although not that widely known today, his projects included Houston Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr Hospital, Saint John's Church in Lower Merion, and the gymnasium at Haverford College. Burk had instructed Medary to plan not just a church but a memorial, a complex of several buildings where a chapel dominated the group without overpowering the other buildings. The chapel would be flanked on its western side by a cloister composed of thirteen bays, each commemorating one of the thirteen original colonies. On the opposite side, the chapel would be connected by a porch to a library, a bell tower, and a hall to be used as a meeting place for patriotic and historical associations.

Medary's plans called for an architectural style known as "Perpendicular Gothic," deriving its inspiration from English Gothic architecture of the fourteenth through early sixteenth centuries and characterized by intricate stonework and an overall linear effect. The choice of this style over the Colonial Revival look so popular in domestic architecture at the turn of the century was puzzling. Medary is remembered chiefly for his Gothic Revival buildings, but he was equally at ease in Georgian styles. Burk could have had a replica of Philadelphia's Christ Church, but he opted for a structure that looked as if it belonged at Cambridge, and one he would also have to defend from time to time. In a magazine article he commented: "Colonial architecture was Georgian; the men at Valley Forge gave their lives in a struggle against the tyranny of a Georgian King. Why mock their memory by building a Georgian Chapel in their honor?" [27]

To house the congregation while the chapel was being built, Burk arranged for construction of a humble barnboard edifice. An early photograph shows it nestled among the trees and identifiable as a church by its arched windows with diamond-shaped panes and the bell on its roof. Burk's wife recalled how she could see squirrels cavorting outside through the chinks in the walls, and that once the rector's warden discovered a fox who had moved inside. [28]

Fig. 14. These two drawings show what the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk envisioned at Valley Forge. He planned (upper) a complex of chapel, cloister, tower, meeting facilities, and library dedicated to George Washington. West of this complex (lower), he wanted a grand entrance to his churchyard dedicated to "The Defenders of the Union" with an arch memorializing Abraham Lincoln. Only the chapel and cloister were built according to this plan. For years the chapel's rector lived in the west side of Defenders' Gate.
Fig. 14. These two drawings show what the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk envisioned at Valley Forge. He planned (upper) a complex of chapel, cloister, tower, meeting facilities, and library dedicated to George Washington. West of this complex (lower), he wanted a grand entrance to his churchyard dedicated to "The Defenders of the Union" with an arch memorializing Abraham Lincoln. Only the chapel and cloister were built according to this plan. For years the chapel's rector lived in the west side of Defenders' Gate.

From Historical and Topographical Guide to Valley Forge by W. Herbert Burk [Philadelphia, 19101]

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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