Washington observed a Day of Fasting and Prayer at Alexandria's Old Presbyterian Meeting House.
One of the most historic churches in America is Alexandria's Old Presbyterian Meeting House. It was founded in 1772. In 1774 the first church building was completed. At the time, the church was simply the First Presbyterian Church of Alexandria. Touring the church today provides an extraordinary glimpse into American history from multiple eras. Let's explore one of them from the late 1790s.
Looking at the church from the front, there is a plaque in between the front doors. The plaque reads that on May 9, 1798, George Washington came to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria to observe a day of fasting and prayer.
Why was there a day of fasting and prayer? What was happening in the country at that time?
First, George Washington was no longer president. He was retired and spending most of his time at Mount Vernon. John Adams was the second president of the United States and had served as Washington’s Vice President during both of Washington's terms in office.
By 1798, America was on the cusp of war with France. What is known historically as the "Quasi-War" with France took place from 1798 until1800. It was an undeclared war, but one with naval hostilities. Additionally, Americans genuinely feared the prospect of a French land invasion.
The early events that moved France and America toward an international crisis began after the French Revolution. In 1792 France and Great Britain were at war for five years (1792-1797) in what is known as the War of the First Coalition. During this time, George Washington helped steer the American republic on a course of neutrality. However, the French were not happy with this policy decision. They felt it undermined the treaty that America and France had signed in 1778 during the American Revolution.
To add insult to injury, the United States signed a treaty with Britain known as the Jay Treaty in 1794. The purpose of the Jay Treaty was to expand trade with Britain and resolve outstanding issues from the American Revolution. But this did not sit well with France. The French were at war with Britain and expected America to be true to their longstanding alliance.
What is fascinating about this period in US politics is how it further split the two emerging political parties. Although he tried to remain above political parties, Washington was a Federalist. His former aide-de-camp and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was also a prominent Federalist. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican, which was both anti-Federalist in its opposition to a stronger national government and pro-French in terms of its geopolitical positions. The Federalists were often accused by Republican papers and politicians of being monarchists and Tories for their willingness to work with the British and put old hostilities in the past.
By the end of Washington’s last term as president, the French began to take more aggressive measures toward American merchant ships. In fact, they seized American ships that they suspected to be carrying British goods. From 1796-1797, the French captured over 300 American ships. As a result, this became the major foreign policy issue of John Adams’s presidency.
To try to resolve the crisis, in July 1797, America sent three commissioners- John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry- to Paris to find a diplomatic solution. What followed is known as the XYZ affair. The commissioners were not heard from for some time. Due to the long silence, Americans began to speculate that something bad may have happened to them. In fact, George Washington mused, “Are our commissioners guillotined… or what else is the occasion of their silence?” (Chernow 782).
News broke that three unnamed French representatives known as "X, Y, Z" had tried to bribe the American commissioners. The incident sparked outrage. It was seen as a slap in the face to the honor of the young American republic. The US Navy, which had been disestablished in 1785 and revived in 1794, was now a national defense prerogative. In April 1798, John Adams signed legislation authorizing the creation of the Department of the Navy. On July 7, 1798, Congress authorized the Navy to use force against French warships in American waters.
As hostilities continued to increase and the prospect of a major war with France loomed, President Adams proclaimed May 9, 1798, a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer. Adams said the following:
“As the United States of America are at present placed in a hazardous and afflictive situation, by the unfriendly disposition, conduct, and demands of a foreign power [France] . . . the 9th of May next, be observed throughout the United States, as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer.”
In Washington’s diary on May 9, he wrote, “Morning clear with but little Wind. Mer. at 58. Wind afterwards fresh indeed hard from the Westward until Night when it ceased. Mer. at 64 at Night. Mr. Lewis went away after breakfast. I went to the Proclamn. Sermon in Alexandria.”
Reverend James Muir, D.D. preached the sermon that day at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Rev. Muir served the congregation from 1789 to 1820. Why was the church called a "meeting house"? Prior to the American Revolution, Colonial Virginia recognized the Church of England as its official, state-sanctioned religion. Consequently Presbyterians met in “meeting houses” as a way to skirt the law and continue to practice their faith.
Presbyterianism was a dissenting religion prior to the American Revolution. As a result, Presbyterians were some of the most adamant Revolutionaries. The Old Presbyterian Meeting House currently claims that over 70 of its members served in the American Revolution on behalf of the Patriot cause. Its church burial grounds contains the remains of many Revolutionary War veterans and is also the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.
As Washington went to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House on May 9, 1798, he was observing a common tradition in American political life. Elected bodies had been calling for days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer since before the founding of America. In fact, the Virginia House of Burgesses had called for a day of fasting and prayer in May 1774 after the British had passed the Coercive or Intolerable Acts in response to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. Thus, American tradition has recognized the importance of prayer and divine guidance in times of national turmoil. By the end of the 18th Century, Adams recognized a national need to invoke a higher power to deal with the present crisis.
Adding to the significance of this time, President Adams appointed George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the army. George Washington remained immensely popular and Adams recognized that his leadership would go a long way to deter France. In terms of domestic politics, it was also a smart appointment. Washington accepted the position and wrote a lengthy reply to Adams in which he remarked:
“But this seems to be the Age of Wonders! and reserved for intoxicated and lawless France (for purposes of Providence far beyond the reach of human ken) to slaughter its own Citizens, & to disturb the repose of all the world besides.”
Furthermore, in the letter to Adams, Washington suggests the necessity of the commander-in-chief to be able to appoint a General Staff. This issue was not without controversy as Washington wanted his former aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, to rank highest on his staff above Henry Knox. Washington’s decision to promote Hamilton irked Knox, who was one of Washington’s best generals during the Revolutionary War and had ranked higher than Hamilton.
Ultimately, a French invasion of America never happened. Washington was brought out of retirement to help build the new army. He did not spend time in the field and his service involved a five week-long planning session in Philadelphia with Alexander Hamilton and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. No more than a year and a half after Washington’s appointment by Adams, he died on December 14, 1799. After Washington's death, the church bell at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House rang for four successive days. The clock at the back of the church is still set to 10:20 p.m. in recognition of the time when Washington died. Finally, there were four memorial services held at the Presbyterian Meeting House in honor of George Washington.
Alexandria's Old Presbyterian Meeting House is one of the most historic churches in America. Washington’s visit on May 9, 1798, sheds light on an important period in American history. On a tour of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, we can reflect on several key points in American history:
The prominence of religious observance in American life through fasting and prayer and seeking the guidance of a divine power.
The way in which international events caused the US to re-think its stated foreign policy objective of neutrality.
Additionally, the way in which US actions towards one nation (i.e., the British) caused another nation (i.e., France) to react in an aggressive manner.
The formation and importance of the Navy as a means of national security especially as the US continued to develop trading partnerships abroad.
The way in which the Quasi-War and the XYZ affair impacted internal US politics specifically driving a rift between Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans.
Finally, the importance of George Washington’s leadership and popularity. Washington remained a unifying figure and an important leader in a time of crisis.
Alexandria History Tours takes guests to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House specifically on our Revolutionary War Tour. However, if a guest books a private Discover Alexandria tour, then we can also see it and discuss more of its fascinating history. Like many of Alexandria's historic churches, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House is an exceptional classroom to discover and learn American history.
Works Cited:  May 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0007-0005. [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 6, 1 January 1790 – 13 December 1799, ed. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979, pp. 294–298.]  Ibid.
Mount Vernon article
Chernow, R. (2010). Washington: A life. Allen Lane.
Washington quote: From George Washington to John Adams, 4 July 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-02-02-0290. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 2 January 1798 – 15 September 1798, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 368–371.]