A Brief Account of Religion and the Revolutionary War Chaplaincy: Part 1

By James E. Newell — 1st Continental Regiment

Background of the Chaplaincy

The practice of taking clergy into battle with armies dates back to the Old Testament.(cf: Deuteronomy 20:1-4) Up through and including the Crusades, the Clergy were an integral part of the Military leadership structure. Gradually they took more of a supportive and less of a leadership role.

The origin of the title "chaplain" goes back to an old legend of St. Martin of Tours, a soldier who lived about 316 to 400AD. Out on the town, Martin met a naked beggar. With his sword, Martin divided his cloak and gave half to the beggar. Later, Martin dreamed that he saw Christ wearing the part of his cloak given to the beggar whereupon Martin sought baptism, abandoned the military, and devoted himself to the Church. His remaining part of the cloak survived him and was carried into battle as a sacred relic of St. Martin who became Patron Saint of France (Drury,2). The reliquary in which the "cappa" was kept was called the "cappella," which through the Old French word "chappelle" became our word "chapel." The priest in charge was called the "Chappellanus," which became "chappellain" in Old French and "chaplain" in English (Williams,11-12).

The first recorded use of a Chaplain in the American Colonies was in the Spring of 1637, when Samuel Stone of Hartford served as chaplain and advisor to Captain John Mason in the Pequot War (ibid., 31). Chaplain Jonathan Frie, aged 21, fought during Queen Ann's War (1702-1713). Wounded, he died on the way home and was the subject of several ballads known throughout New England(Thompson, 40). Chaplains Buckingham and Edwards served on the expedition to Crown Point in 1711. They wore regimental coats and were issued fusees (ibid., 36). In King George's War (1744-1748), Moses Coffin served as chaplain and drummer and was dubbed "the drummer ecclesiastic" (Williams, 34).

The French Canadians had chaplains also during these various wars, and Francois Piquet, a Jesuit, acted as an advanced scout in his post with the Indians and passed back information to the Governor that led to the French attack on Saratoga in November of 1745 (ibid., 228). Chaplain Norton, in 1746, was taken prisoner with his flock to Canada and continued to minister to them and resist the French attempts to convert him (ibid., 48). There was a Chaplain Newell in the French and Indian War in 1755, but we don't know any more than that about him (ibid., 225). During the various campaigns to take Fort Duquesne throughout the French and Indian War (1755-1763), Col. George Washington begged Virginia's Governor Dinwoodie repeatedly for a chaplain. One was finally approved but never appointed and services continued to be supplied by civilian clergy when there happened to be any available (ibid, 58).

By the time of the Revolutionary War, the chaplains had carved for themselves, a place with the military which was not within the chain of command but was never-the-less considered almost indispensable. For years, in every "little valley and sequestered nook" of the English Colonies, the clergy had taught the doctrines of freedom and preached the duty of resistance to oppression (Headly, 17). Further, The Act of Episcopacy (1772) attempted to establish the Anglican as the official state church, complete with Bishop, in the colonies. The Quebec Act (1774) attempted to cede the territory west of the Appalachian mountains and north of the Ohio River to Canada and would have allowed the Canadians to keep their exclusive Roman Catholic Religion and apply it in the newly ceded territory. These attempted actions by the English Parliament worried and angered the Protestants and increased the preaching against Catholicism and Religious tyranny (Thompson, 81). Whether the Quebec Act actually "established" Catholicism as the official religion in the British Colony of Canada is open to debate, but it was widely considered to have done so by people on both sides of the Atlantic and contributed in no small part to the Revolution (Griffin, 6-7).

A remarkable bit of propaganda was printed in England by the "Friends of America" and distributed to departing English soldiers. It began, "Gentlemen, You are about to embark for America to compel your fellow subjects there to submit to Popery and slavery..." (ibid., 12). Ironically, many, including Benedict Arnold and the Reverend Jacob Duche (Episcopalian) from Philadelphia, attributed their switching to the British side partly to what they considered the "Popery shown by Congress in welcoming the French support". Alexander Hamilton said, "Remember, civil and religious liberty always go together; if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course" (ibid., 84), and John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson, "can free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic Religion?" (Griffin, 32).

Another reason for heavy Clergy involvement was the large immigration of Scots-Irish Presbyterian clergy. By their very nature, they hated and distrusted the English Parliament.

A very practical reason, however, was the fact that the "Pulpit was the most direct and effectual way of reaching the masses" (Headly, 22). In most of the colonies that had militia, a major part of each training day was a sermon, sometimes called an "artillery sermon," which "literally bristled with Old Testament injunctions in support of a just war" (Higgenbotham, 3). "Several generations of Americans saw themselves transformed into the Biblical David, while France (and later Britain) was Goliath incarnate" (ibid.).

Further, in Philadelphia "Caractacus" an essayist "On Standing Armies," prophesied that virtuous yeomen and artisans associating "together in barracks or camps," would lose the "gentleness and sobriety of citizens." Congress believed that nothing of the sort would happen if the troops' spiritual needs were guaranteed by the presence of chaplains.(ibid., 92)

Denominational Attitudes Toward the War

While the power of the pulpit to educate and motivate extended to all denominations, not all shared the same enthusiasm for the war and thus the messages preached varied along the lines of the often quoted estimate that one third of the population was for the war, one third was against it, and the remaining third just wanted to be left alone. Thompson claims that there were about 3200 churches divided among eighteen denominations at the time of the outbreak of the War (Thompson, 84). The attitudes of the major groups are listed as follows:

Congregational (668) and Presbyterian (588) As noted above, these were the staunch New Englanders and the recently immigrated Scots-Irish, both of whom were solidly behind liberty from British rule (ibid., 86). The Presbyterians were so vocal and effective in preaching rebellion that many had prices on their heads and were treated with extreme barbarity if captured (Williams, 42). In fact, King George is said to have characterized the American Revolution as "A Presbyterian War." Horace Walpole, addressing the English Parliament, said "There is no crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson and that is the end of it" (Donehoo, 1069).

Further, the Congregational church which was anti-Anglican, remained the official established church in New England until 1833 (Thompson, 86).

Anglicans (495) These churches were solidly Loyalist (ibid., 86-87). The Anglican Clergy were bound in a way not shared by other denominations. Their ordination vows had included an oath to "bear true faith and allegiance to the Crown" (Williams, 66). Most went back to England. William White D.D. was the only Episcopal clergyman in Pennsylvania to remain after the British evacuated Philadelphia (Headly, 64). The British chaplains were all Church of England or Church of Scotland, however they were under the regimental system and most did not accompany their units to America. The Official British Chaplaincy History does not even recognize British involvement in the American Revolution (Thompson, 201). There were twenty-eight chaplains, mostly Anglican, with the Loyalist troops.(ibid., 203)

Methodists (65) In 1770, John Wesley published a piece entitled "Free Thoughts on the Present State of Public Affairs," which was positive to the American cause. In 1775, he reversed himself and published "A Calm Address on our American Colonies" in which he backed the King (ibid.,85). As a result, all but Asbury of the eight Methodist missionaries sent over by Wesley left the country with their Anglican brothers at various points during the war. Further, in 1777, the Methodists are estimated to have totaled 6968 persons, of which 4379 were in Virginia and North Carolina where the Anglican Church remained established until 1796 (ibid.,86 & 99). At this point in history, the Methodists were a lay movement within the Anglican Church and thus there were no ordained Methodist clergy. There were, however, circuit-riding lay preachers through-out the South, and while the Methodists, as a whole, were largely neutral or faithful to the crown (ibid., 86), at least one unordained preacher, Jesse Lee of Virginia, enlisted as a non-combatant wagon master (earning the rank of sergeant) and served informally as unit Chaplain (ibid., 198-199).

Baptists (494) This denomination had been severely persecuted both in the Congregational North where they were taxed to support the Congregational Pastors, and in the Anglican South where many had been beaten for their faith (ibid., 86-87). Thus they were solidly behind the concept of religious freedom.

Quakers (310) Quakers, like the Baptists, had suffered at the hands of the Anglicans, however most chose to remain silent and to follow their belief in non violence (ibid.). This was not universally the case, however, since about four hundred Quakers were disowned by their "Meetings" for participating in the war efforts. They formed what was known as the "Free Quakers." Included in this group were famous participants, Thomas Mifflin, the Quartermaster General of the Continental Army and later Governor of Pennsylvania, Nathaniel Green who succeeded Mifflin as Quartermaster General, and Betsy Ross (Williams, 45).

Lutherans (150) Largely German speaking, members of this denomination found themselves in both camps. Some continued loyalty to "German King George" as the Elector of Hanover, and others, having tasted freedom and the ability to own land for the first time in their lives, distrusted England. The twenty-five "Hessian" Chaplains, were mostly Lutheran and Reformed (with one Roman Catholic) (Thompson, 201). The "Hessian" soldiers themselves were deeply religious and held hour-long devotions and hymn singing after reveille and tattoo. As prisoners they built themselves a chapel (ibid., 203).

Roman Catholic (56) The Catholics were also split in their loyalties with many siding with the Revolution despite the anti-Catholic sentiment. Ironically, although the Protestants feared that the King was too pro-Catholic, the Maryland Catholics feared that he was too anti-Catholic. When the French entered the war, they brought with them eleven Roman Catholic chaplains for the land troops and one hundred more on board ships (ibid.). Some American soldiers of the Catholic faith attended their first Mass in years in the nearby French camps (Williams, 87). There were two Continental Regiments known collectively as "Congress' Own" made up primarily of French Canadian Catholics supplemented by Catholics from Pennsylvania. Father Eustache Lotbiniere, also from Canada, was appointed by Benedict Arnold as Chaplain to the 1st Regiment on January 26th, 1776. He continued in the pay of the Congress for most of the war although he probably did not celebrate Mass since he had been cut off by Bishop Briand of Quebec, a staunch loyalist to the English. The Bishop also excommunicated all the Canadians who fought on the American side (Griffin, 45-46). Col. Morgan Connor (O'Connor) who originally enlisted as Lt. in George Nagel's Company of Riflemen raised in Reading on July 17, 1775, was most probably a Roman Catholic since he served as Godfather to several Catholic children in Philadelphia (ibid., 133-134).

Jewish (5) The small Jewish population of about 2000 people strongly supported the revolution (Thompson, 87). Francis Salvador of Charlestown, South Carolina, was the first Jew to die in the Revolution in 1776; Col. Mordecai Sheftall was Commissary General to the Georgia Militia; and Haym Solomon was honored by the nation for helping to finance the Revolution (Sloan, 4).

Clerical Involvement in the War

There were basically only three religious stances to the war, the same three existing today — some were religious crusaders, some were pacifists and would not participate, and some were combatants "who participate in War as a grim reality and a sad necessity of life while wishing wholeheartedly for peace, good will toward men" (ibid., 95).

Although, as has been seen, the majority of the Churches supported the Revolutionary cause, not all of the Clergy did so in the same way. Pierre Gibault, a Roman Catholic, was Vicar-General for the Bishop of Quebec. He had sole responsibility for what was then called the Illinois Country. Against the orders of his Bishop not to get involved, he volunteered to ride one hundred and fifty miles to Vincennes, the center of French colonial government in America and convince a large proportion of the inhabitants to take an oath of allegiance to the American leaders. As a result, George Rodgers Clark, who didn't have enough men or arms to storm the town, was able to occupy it without firing a shot (Garrison, 168).

Some, like John Witherspoon D.D., a Scott who was released from an English prison only after Culloden, was an outspoken advocate for the Revolution. His sarcasm was withering and he used it to great effect to silence critics both before and after he was elected to Congress (Headly, 280). Another member of Congress, Father Carrol, a Jesuit from Maryland, went with Franklin and Chase as a Commissioner to Canada in March 1776 and later signed the Declaration of Independence (Griffin, 19). Some, like Peter Muhlenberg, left their religious life altogether and became professional soldiers. Others did both.

The Reverend James Hall of Iredell County North Carolina was elected Captain of a cavalry unit. He refused a promotion to General to stay with his unit and serve as its Commander/Chaplain (Thompson, 197). John Steele of Cumberland, Pennsylvania, also served as a Captain and Chaplain, while Dr. Latta of Lancaster, a militia Chaplain, enlisted as a common soldier when an unusual number of his parishioners were drafted into the army (Headly, 69). Some, like David Jones, the Welsh Baptist from Pennsylvania, served both as a Chaplain and as a Surgeon (Rogers, 76) and fought alongside the troops whenever the opportunity presented itself (ibid., 83-85). Joseph Fish of Duxbury, Mass., at seventy-six years of age, was too old to enlist but told the assembled volunteers:

"Were it not that my nerves are unstrung and my limbs enfeebled with age, on such a call as you have, I think I should willingly quit my desk, put off my priestly garments, buckle on the harness, and with trumpet in hand, hasten to battle" (ibid, 67).

Finally, "Tea Parties" were held all up and down the Atlantic coast and the one at Greenwich, New Jersey, on Friday, December 23, 1774, was lead by Andrew Hunter and Philip Fithian, two Princeton Theological students.

To be continued.


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Copyright © 1995 James E. Newell. All rights reserved.