Our Most Famous Ancestor

Mason Loch Weems (Parson Weems)

Mason Loch Weems is the person who in 1800 wrote the apocrypha story of the cherry tree in his life of Washington.  The book had an immense circulation and is to a considerable degree responsible for the traditional conception of Washington.  At an early age he went to London and to the University of Edinburgh for several years totudy medicine, came home in 1776, returned to England in 1782 to obtain Holy Orders from the Anglican Bishops and on September 5, 1784, was ordained to the deaconate by the Bishop of Chester acting under the Bishop of London, in the Duke Street Chapel, Westminster, and one week later was admitted to the priesthood by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the same year he became rector All Hallowed Parish in Anne Arundel County,  was one of the most active clergymen in the diocese until about 1792 when he first became interested in writing books having wide appeal and distributing them for profits.  The enterprise was very successful. It is interesting to note that in May, 1795, when he was elected a member of the exclusive South River Club.

The following is a quote from the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography: he studied theology in Edinburgh, took orders in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and for some years was rector of Pohick Church, Truro Parish,Virginia, at which Washington was an attendant. About 1790 necessities of his family obliged him to resign this charge and he became a book agent for Matthew Carey, the Philadelphia publisher.  He was remarkably successful in that employment, "traveling throughout the south with his books in his saddle-bags, equally ready for a stump, a fair or a pulpit." He was eccentric in mind and manner and when ever he heard of a public meeting he would attend it, and, collecting a crowd about him, urge on his hearers the merits of his books, interspersing his remarks with anecdotes and humorous sallies.  With his temperance pamphlet, entitled "The Drunkard's Glass," illustrated with cuts, he would enter taverns and, by mimicking the extravagances of the drunkard, so amuse and delight his audiences that he had no trouble in selling his wares.  He was an expert violin player, on which he performed for young people to dance, thereby causing much scandal in pious communities.  On one occasion he had promised to assist at a merrymaking, but fearing for his clerical character, he decided to play behind a screen.  In the course of the evening it was overturned, disclosing the parson to the jeers of the company.

On another occasion he was obliged to pass through a dangerous district of South Carolina which at that time was infested with robbers.  Just at nightfall his wagon sank into a quagmire; two ruffians appeared and were about to seize him, when he took out his violin and so charmed them by his music that they lifted his wheels out of the mud and let him go.  "I took precious care," said Weems, "to say nothing of my name.  When they pressed the question my fiddle drowned their words and mind too."

Of his temperance tracts Bishop William Meade says in his "Old Churches and Old Families of Virginia:" "They would be most admirable in their effects but for the fact that you know not what to believe of the narrative.  There are passages of deep pathos and great eloquence in them."  This charge of a want of veracity is brought against all of Weems' writings, but there is no improbability apparent in any of them, and indeed, there is too much tendency to hypercriticism with many modern writers.  Several of the most widely circulated anecdotes of the youth of Washington, especially the famous one of the hatchet, rest on his authority.  An entertaining sketch of Weems' early pastorate is given in the "Travels in America" by John Davis, London, 1802.  In this narrative he figures as a pious and devout preacher, devoted to good works.  One of his pamphlets, "The Philanthropist," was commended by Washington in an autograph letter to the author, who prefixed it to subsequent editions of the tract.  His principal works are: "Life of George Washington," which is still largely sold in the rural districts of many parts of the country, and is the most popular biography of that general in existence, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1800; eleventh edition, with additions, in 1811; "Life of General Francis Marion," 1805; "Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays," 1817; and "Life of William Penn,: 1819.