This guest post is by Keith Beutler, professor of history at Missouri Baptist University. Dr. Beutler is the author of George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders (University of Virginia Press, 2021).

In 1994, historian Mark Noll plumbed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in America. He highlighted as one of the American evangelical subculture’s abiding weaknesses a tendency to fashion misinformed patriotic myths about the United States’ founders.

This tendency didn’t begin in the 20th century. In the 1820s and ‘30s, as the last “living relics” of the Founding were dying, a heartfelt crisis of historical memory gripped the nation. Frenetically, Americans began grasping for alternative material props to commemorate the fast-disappearing founding generation. More than a few patriots attempted to take America’s founding history by the hair—by George Washington’s hair, to be precise.

Snippets of hair purportedly shorn from the pate of America’s Pater Patriae, George Washington, are currently held—often out of public view, like an embarrassing family secret—in more than 100 of the nation’s museums, research universities, archives, libraries, and historical societies, as I’ve mapped them here.

Even allowing that it was common in early America to keep hair locks of the loved and lost, and that some caches of “George Washington’s hair” must be fake, copious references to keepsake stashes in the 18th and 19th century leave no doubt that a “cult” of George Washington’s hair flourished in the young United States.

The years between 1790 and 1840 were also, in Mark Noll’s words, an era of “evangelical surge,” in which revivalist grassroots Protestantism reached new fervor. Faced with growing discrimination and prejudice, Catholics in the United States highlighted the seeming hypocrisy of Protestant evangelicals, who, as Cincinnati’s Catholic Telegraph reported accurately in 1835, were eager to “receive with respect and guard with reverence” the “illustrious Washington’s hair,” even as they accused Catholics who honored saints’ relics of “idolatry.”

In 1832, James R. Willson, a Presbyterian pastor and legislative chaplain in Albany, New York, became one of the few evangelicals in the period to call out fellow-evangelicals for inaccurate, posthumous recasting of America’s Founding elite in their own born-again image.  Willson—arguing from recently published papers and other primary sources—categorically rejected claims that U.S. Founders had, in the main, been evangelically inclined.

When word of Reverend Willson’s sermon reached the ears of legislators in Albany, they voted ninety-five to two to condemn the preacher for having “unnecessarily endeavored to detract from the fame of many of the benefactors of our country.” Then they rescinded his appointment as a state chaplain. Outside the legislative halls, an angry mob burned Willson in effigy, suggesting that the growing tendency among American evangelicals to cling to exaggerated pietistic myths about the United States Founders might have a scandalously long half-life.

Washington’s relics illustrate one version of the longstanding American penchant for revering the Founders in sacred terms. But as biblical anthropology might lead one to predict, the historical truth about the Founding Fathers was quite messy. The founding generation was hardly exempt from original sin. Several of the new nation’s leading political lights expressly rejected the divinity of Jesus. In retirement, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson vented to each other their shared disdain for evangelical doctrines.

Adams, wrote to Jefferson, that it was “awful blasphemy” to believe New Testament claims that God was incarnated as Jesus Christ, or that the “great principle which has produced this boundless Universe…came down to this little Ball to be spit-upon by Jews.” Jefferson averred to Adams that the doctrine of the Trinity was just the “deliria of crazy imaginations.” Adams could be confident that Jefferson would find humor in Adams’s criticism of evangelical, U.S. founder, and future president of the American Bible Society, John Jay, for studying biblical “Prophecies to the End of his Life.”

As Adams’s quip about Jay reflected, a few of the leading founders were indeed evangelicals. Yet Mark Noll has noted that confessed evangelicals—John Jay, Elias Boudinot, and Patrick Henry, for example—were in the second tier of influence within America’s founding political elite. In recent years, historians including the Evangelical History blog’s Thomas Kidd have effectively elaborated and qualified that summary claim.

My own new book on patriotic memory in the early America republic, George Washington’s Hair: How Early Americans Remembered the Founders complements those prior studies of evangelical religion in the new nation. In a key chapter in that work, I trace the historical roots of evangelical misremembering of the founders to their uncritical embrace in the 1820s and ‘30s of new “scientific” theories about the biology of human memory then gaining currency in American culture.

Evangelicals also applied those au currant physicalist understandings of memory (many of which would later be discredited as just pseudo-scientific blither blather). They would use these beliefs about memory in their own earnest efforts to reliably and patriotically “remember” foundational American history.

The new “mnemonic physicalism” demanded primary reliance upon material props to physically anchor, and memorably convey into people’s physical brains, material evidence (one might even say forensic evidence) of the historical past. Such seemingly arcane beliefs about history and memory are at the heart of the enduring evangelical reverence for the Founders.