Today's guest post comes from my Messiah College colleague Matthew Hunter. Matt recently finished an excellent dissertation in the Religious Studies Department at Temple University titled "Liberation in White and Black: The American Visual Culture of Two Philadelphia-Area Episcopal Churches." Matt describes his own quest to uncover the answer to this question and how he translated this quest into the classroom. -JF
History Research Lab: Were there prostitutes at Valley Forge?
During my dissertation research (Temple U. 2010. Go Owls!) on the meaning of American history in Episcopal Church-art I found this (above) stained glass in the Bell Tower (built just after WWII) at Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge (built earlier):
I never found out who these “hostesses” are or were. I assume they represent women who provided hospitality to Washington or the Continental Army. My adviser’s cynical streak led her to wonder “what sort of hospitality these women offered,” which could have been ignored except for this: I had read somewhere that the women serving Washington’s army were “the largest assembly of prostitutes ever on American soil” or some superlative to that end.
After racking my brain (racking vs. wracking is another controversial subject) I dug out a popular book by Dean Merrill called Sinnersin the Hands of an Angry Church that I had read years ago and found the accusation on page eighty-nine (Zondervan, 1997). The full quote suggests the irony of Washington’s chaplain, Alexander McWhorter, preaching a rousing sermon condemning “Papist Highland barbarians” (Scottish soldiers fighting for Britain) while ignoring the presence of “200 or more camp-following women, perhaps the largest gathering of prostitutes to that day on American soil, who with the troops, listened to his sermon.” I followed note 16 and discovered that his source was the esteemed Christian historian Mark Noll (see credentials below), whose essay for The Search for ChristianAmerica with other esteemed Christian historians George Marsden and Nathan Hatch, supplied the quote (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1983, 64). At this point, I might have said, “Mark Noll wrote it! Case closed!” but the research bloodhound had awoken and I was starting to feel like Indiana Jones’ nerdy cousin, so I pressed the issue… all the way to Noll’s notes.
There, I found a citation for James MacLachlan, et al’s Princetonians, Vol. 3:1748-1768, and I tracked down that book in the stacks of a certain semi-monastic Christian college in rustic central PA. Very Goth I can assure you. Like a Dan Brown novel featuring the modernized descendants of “horse and buggy Mennonites.” Anyway, Richard Harrison’s entry on Alexander McWhorter assumes the “sinfulness” of the camp-following women, but does not insinuate that they were prostitutes, making this even more like a Dan Brown novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 196). No other source is given. One may assume Princeton archives perhaps, but even so… Noll seemed to have taken the classic “sinful women to prostitutes” leap! Then fell I to my knees and did thank the Venerable Bede for his intercession. Okay, I’m too Protestant for that, but it was a cool moment and I may or may not have cracked my “air bullwhip” to celebrate. I had just debunked one of my heroes.
So, let me give you the research wrap up and a fun class experiment to try if you happen to teach American history (religious or otherwise).
Research wrap up: There are no significant references to “hostesses” in the Indices of several books on women in the Revolution that I reviewed or the countless books on Washington that I also used, perused, reviewed and referenced. According to Joan R. Gunderson’s To Be Useful to the World, “Army women were expected to be of good character; the army drummed out of service those who were lewd or promiscuous (New Tork: Twayne Publishers, 1996, 165). This is generally consistent with Holly A. Mayer’s assessment in Belonging to theArmy: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution, though she allows that some small minority may have been prostitutes while others may have attached themselves to officers to escape poverty and become pregnant (not necessarily in that order) (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996, 5, 86, 110-112). However, some other authors assume that promiscuity or prostitution were major reasons for the presence of many of these women. See Allen Bowman’s TheMorale of the American Revolutionary Army (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press Inc., 1943).
Fun college class experiment (you might have to make sure your library has the relevant sources).
1. Take them to the library and give them the following information:
- Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church
- Valley Forge 1776
- “the largest gathering of prostitutes to that day on American soil, who with the troops, listened to his sermon”
2. Ask: What do you infer from this information? Wait for it. Someone will at least be bored enough with the blank stares of his or her classmates to take a stab. Discuss.
3. Put them in teams of 3-4 and ask them to track down this source and find out if it is credible and come back with Merrill’s source when they find it or hit a dead end (because some other group grabbed it). Merrill’s book has full preview on Google-books (if they search “16” from the note attached to the quotation for instance, they will eventually find Noll on page 179). Your library might not have Merrill but it should have Noll et al (reprint: Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989, 64).
Hopefully, someone brings back Noll. Tell them what you know about Noll (24 books, National Humanities Medal in 2006, Time Magazine’s 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005, etc.). Since Merrill points us to page 64 in Noll, we can easily find Noll’s note and source. Repeat step 3 and then step 2 with McLachlan. Wait for it. Wait for it. Air bullwhip.