A Brief Account of Religion and the Revolutionary War Chaplaincy: Part 2

By James E. Newell — 1st Continental Regiment

Official actions pertaining to the chaplaincy.

After Lexington and Concord, great numbers of the parishioners remembered their Pastors' teachings and rallied to the cause. Others saw their Pastors enlist to shame or encourage their flocks to do likewise. At first, however, the chaplaincy was a totally unorganized system. Some clergy were commissioned by governors, some were part of various militias, and some were commissioned by authorities in the national army. These men were officers of a regiment in the standard British system rather than members of a Chaplain's Corps per se. Their function rather than their rank justified their presence, and "they were motivated with the courage of a crusade and the unconventionality of a mission" (Williams, 76).

On April 6, 1775, the Connecticut Assembly appointed a chaplain to each of the six regiments of colonial militia at a salary of six pounds sterling. In July, they added additional chaplains, and in December, they raised the salary to twenty dollars a month plus a monthly grant of forty shillings for a supply pastor to cover their home churches. In Pennsylvania, many clergymen had been serving as temporary chaplains in local militia companies. When the war began, the militia was reorganized and the chaplains were given permanent status. In early 1776, the Pennsylvania Assembly authorized appointment of one chaplain for each battalion of riflemen and musketmen. These chaplains were to be selected by the field officers with the approval of the Assembly and were to receive twenty dollars per month (ibid., 80). New Jersey never developed a system for giving official approval to chaplains with the result that many clergy crossed over to Pennsylvania to serve.

On May 25th, 1775, a committee of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts resolved to permit thirteen chaplains to be stationed with the encampment around Boston (Headley, 61).

July 29, 1775 - On this date, which is considered the official birthday of the American Chaplaincy Corps, the Congress recognized chaplains in the national army with a rank equal to that of a Captain and a monthly pay of twenty dollars (Thompson, 107).

August 15, 1775 - Washington reported that fifteen chaplains were in service for twenty-three regiments and that twenty-nine regiments were without any. In September, there were twenty regiments supplied and twenty vacancies. The situation worsened over the Fall and by January 9, 1776, there were only nine chaplains and eighteen vacancies (Headley, 62). Washington thought that the pay was not enough and suggested a chaplain for each two regiments as a means of doubling the salary.

January 16, 1776 - Congress passed the "Chaplaincy Act" authorizing one chaplain for every two regiments for the "army at Cambridge." The pay was set at thirty three and one third dollars (Williams, 82).

September 20, 1776 - Congress passed the "Articles of War" which was highly moralistic in tone, and while they didn't establish an organized chaplaincy, they did recommend diligence in services and established their authority over the chaplains in locations other than "the Army at Cambridge" (see January 16th). The articles also provided for fines or confinement for soldiers not attending services and for AWOL chaplains to be court martialed and fined a maximum of one month's pay (Williams, 83). Washington was now of the opinion that one chaplain should not be expected to serve more than one regiment to prevent the possibility that some of the men would have a chaplain of a faith other than their own. Apparently most of the units were fairly homogeneous as far as religion is concerned.

November 15, 1776 - Congress established the Navy Chaplaincy at a base pay of twenty dollars a month (Drury, 3).

November 28, 1776 - Congress approved the Navy regulations, the second article of which reads:

"The Commanders of ships of the thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon (implying an ordained clergyman) preached on Sundays unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."

These are much stronger provisions than for the Army. They also had much stronger designated punishments. Article three reads:

"If any shall be heard to swear, curse, or blaspheme the name of God, the Commander is strictly enjoined to punish them for every offense, by causing them to wear a wooden collar, or some other shameful badge of distinction ... Commissioned officers forfeit one shilling for each offense, a warrant or inferior officer, six pence. For drunkenness, a seaman shall be put in irons until sober - if an officer he shall forfeit two days pay" (ibid.).

February 1777 - Congress reorganized the Army Chaplaincy service, requiring all chaplains to be commissioned by Congress. Also they extended services to garrisons, forts, hospitals, and to rifle and cavalry brigades. Prior to this only infantry and artillery units received chaplains. Several chaplains were assigned to linguistic service with the Indians, and Washington's desire was recognized with one chaplain authorized per unit (Williams, 83).

April 1777 - Pay was increased to forty dollars per month (ibid.).

May 27, 1777 - Congress decided upon only one chaplain per Brigade, to be appointed by Congress and with the same pay, rations and forage allotment as a Colonel. Nominations were to be made by each Brigadier-General and Washington was directed to send in a list of all chaplains so that Congress could recommission the good ones and eliminate the bad ones (Williams, 84).

September 11, 1777 - Congress ordered 20,000 Bibles imported for use by the Army (Bolton, 159).

September 18, 1777 - Congress created the Hospital Chaplaincy Corps with one chaplain for each of the four medical districts. The pay was to be sixty dollars per month, three food rations and one forage ration (Williams, 84).

1778 - New Commissions were issued to some and not others in completion of the orders of May 27,1777 (ibid.).

1780 - Congress abolished the Hospital Chaplaincy for economy reasons and turned the responsibility for the hospitals over to the Brigade Chaplains (ibid.).

May 8, 1781 - Washington was directed to re-arrange assignments to one chaplain per brigade. The dismissed were to receive a pension of one half a Captain's pay for life. No new chaplains were commissioned after this point (ibid.). Since they were rarely in one place for services, it was decided that light dragoon units did not need a chaplain (Thompson, 205).

1782 - Congress determined that "Chaplains, Surgeons, or Hospital Officers who shall be captured in the future may not be considered prisoners of war" (ibid.).

1783 - Congress granted five years full Captain's pay to all retired chaplains previously entitled to half pay for life (Williams, 84).

Military duties and appearance of the clergy.

The normal term of service for a chaplain at the start of the war was six months. Like the men who couldn't spare any more time away from their farms, the clergy were not paid by their home churches and were usually responsible for paying for their temporary replacements back home. A few served only during the week and returned home each weekend (Williams, 38).

Throughout the Revolution, chaplains, although officers without rank, had no specified uniform. David Jones apparently wore an officer's uniform but without epaulets, changing to rougher clothes when serving as a surgeon (Rogers, 86). Most wore their usual civilian dress and there is one record of black material being issued to a chaplain for the purpose of making a replacement set of clothes (Thompson, 95). On May 19, 1780, the Supreme Executive Council at Philadelphia "ordered that a suit of cloaths of Black be furnished by the State Clothier to the Reverend Mr Samuel Blair, Chaplain to the Brigade of artillery, in the same manner as has been furnished to other Clergymen" (PA. Archives, 358).

Universally in this era, chaplains bore arms, at least the sword of an officer and a gentleman, and occasionally a firearm as well. Jones carried a pistol and used it frequently (Rogers, 101). Many other Chaplains also used weapons upon occasion although it would seem that their normal post during and after a battle was with the wounded. "My station in time of action I knew to be among the surgeons" - John Gano (Headly, 255). Ebenezer David died of sickness while working at a Hospital on March 19, 1778. Thompson notes that many chaplains served also as surgeons (Thompson, 185), and in fact, Robert Blackwell, James Sproat, David Jones and David Avery had each been trained as professional medical men as well as Clergy before joining the Army. Avery brought his own medical chest because of the lack of supplies in the Army (Williams, 87).

The duties of a chaplain were not officially stated but, in broad terms, amounted to these: (1) Conduct divine services, (2) Obey superior officers and Congress, and (3) Act as a representative of God (Williams, 85). Practically, they uttered prayers, usually before the reading of the orders in the morning, before a march and before role call at night (Bolton, 158). They held Sunday services and officiated at funerals (Williams, 85-86). They performed marriages, both within the camp and for nearby civilian church members who were without pastors (ibid., 87). Evidently, American Protestant soldiers received Holy Communion in local churches, if at all, since the only record of a Protestant service of Holy Communion is in the diary of Philip Waldeck, a "Hessian" (Thompson, 210). Roman Catholic soldiers were visited by French Catholic Chaplains who administered the Eucharist (Williams, 87).

Daily life through selected personal accounts of Revolutionary War chaplains.

It is said of David Avery of Gaysboro Vermont, that he was "everything Washington wanted in a chaplain" (Headly, 298). Avery had served as Captain of a group of his parishioners, bringing them to Cambridge at which time they were assigned to Col. Sherburn's Rgt. and Avery became a full time chaplain. He was reported to be:

"Intrepid and fearless in battle, Unwearied in his attentions to the sick and wounded; nursing them with care and faithful to their souls as if they were of his own Parish." He had a "Love of Country so strong that it became a passion, was cheerful under privations, ready for any hardship, and never lost, in the turmoil of camp, that warmth and glowing piety which characterized the devoted minister of God" (ibid.).

He frequently rode beside Washington and often ate with him. At the attack on Trenton, he picked up a fallen musket and fired upon the Hessians (ibid., 296-297).

Although the Navy regulations were more detailed than those of the Army, they also gave little guidance beyond the Sabbath sermon and daily services. The ship's captains were given a lot of latitude to draw up their own job descriptions for their chaplain. John Paul Jones sought a man with a set of qualifications that indicated that the chaplain would also be Jones' private secretary. The position was never filled because one of the qualifications was that the chaplain be Protestant and they were anchored in a French port at the time (Drury, 4).

The most important function of the chaplains was, however, to conduct Sunday services including a Sermon of a practical nature that would meet the needs of the men (or of the Army) at the time. Services were usually held at 11:00 in the morning (Bolton, 159). The Reverend A.R. Robbins reports in his journal that:

"The music march up and the drummers lay their drums in a very neat style into rows one above the other; it often takes five and often the rows are very long, Occasionally they make a platform for me to stand on and raise their drums a number of tiers" (ibid.).

Normally services were held in the open. Rev. Gano was not in camp at Valley Forge during the Winter, because he realized that the men could not be expected to stand in the open for services (Bolton, 162). Having services was considered of great importance, however, and at Newbury at the Winter Encampment of 1780-1781, the army erected the usual huts "and one larger than the rest for a place of public worship on the Sabbath. Here three services a day were held, the chaplains from each Brigade preaching in rotation" (Headly, 271).

Occasionally, services were held in a nearby church building. Lt. William Feltman of the First Pennsylvania Rgt. noted in his Journal of 1781-1782, that on August 19th "... from the parade we marched to a church close by our encampment, where Doct. Jones (the chaplain) preached us a sermon" (Feltman, 10).

A penalty was imposed for missing services; a few hours spent in digging out stumps (ibid., 161). The matter of the lack of interest in services had been treated differently in previous years. In 1755, Chaplain Charles Beaty served a force led by Benjamin Franklin to guard the Northwestern frontier of Pennsylvania. At Franklin's suggestion, the chaplain served the daily rum ration to those who were in formation for prayers (Williams, 34-35).

The sermon, itself, was usually of a practical nature in which the Chaplain would urge upon the men temperance, vigilance, cleanness, and honesty (Bolton, 159). Several typical sermon topics are as follows:

"He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." - Rev. Kirkland, 9/15/1776 (ibid., 160).

"This day shall be a memorial unto you throughout your generations." - Rev. Gano, 7/4/1776 (ibid.).

"Defensive War in a Just Cause Sinless" - Rev. David Jones to Col.Dewee's Regt., Tredyffrin, PA, 7/20/1775 (Baldwin, 112). [This, apparently, was the sermon mentioned above by Lt. Feltman.]

Told to dwell a little more on politics than usual, Gano, in 1779 at Canajoharie, preached on "Come go thou with us and we will do thee good, for he that seeketh my life, seeketh thy life but with us thou shalt be in safeguard" - 1st Samuel 22:23 (Bolton, 160). On another occasion, Gano was told that it would be a disaster if the six and nine months men did not reinlist. Gano told them that "he could aver to the truth that our Lord and Savior approved of all those who had engaged in His service for the whole warfare." The troops were amused by this stretching of the Word of the Bible but kidded each other into reinlisting anyway (ibid., 161).

Reverend Gano, true to his own injunction, served the entire war and on April 19, 1783, under orders from George Washington, had the honor of announcing that the war was officially over and that the United States of America was free and independent. Afterwards, Gano assembled the officers and men who had survived the entire war and led them in a prayer of thanksgiving and peace (Thompson, 208).

Navy Chaplains

Despite the Navy regulations that required a chaplain on every ship, there were only two recorded Navy chaplains during the Revolutionary period. The first was the Reverend Benjamin Balch, a Congregationalist whose father had served in King George's War. Balch fought as a minuteman at the Battle of Lexington and served as a Army chaplain at the siege of Boston. On October 28, 1778 he reported aboard the frigate Boston at a pay rate of ninety shillings per month. After the Boston was captured he served on the Alliance along with his two young sons. He fought alongside the men in the capture of two British ships off Halifax and became known as the "Fighting Parson" (Drury, 4). One of his sons, William, became the first chaplain commissioned in the U.S.Navy in 1798 (ibid., 8). After Balch retired, the Captain of the Alliance, John Barry, appointed the second and last Navy chaplain of the Revolutionary War. Barry, an Irish Roman Catholic appointed the ship's surgeon, James Geagan, probably also Roman Catholic, as chaplain (ibid., 5).

No discussion of Revolutionary War era chaplains would be complete without mentioning Chaplain Caldwell, a Presbyterian who was immortalized in Bret Harte's poem about "The Rebel High Priest." His church had been burned down by a Tory and his wife shot through the window of her house by Hessians. It was he who, when the troops slackened their fire due to a lack of paper for wadding, was reported to have run into a local Presbyterian church and brought out Watts Hymnals, crying "Give them Watts, boys, give them Watts" (Thompson, 196).

Williams counts 179 chaplains reported as having served during the war, however, Thompson, the US Army Chaplincy Historican counted only 111 at the time of the writing of his book. He is currently retired and it is my understanding that his research has turned up more names. I have the list from Thompson's book and will be happy to share it with anyone who is interested in checking the list from their state.


Baldwin, Alice, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, (New York, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1928).

Bolton, Charles Knowles, The Private Soldier Under Washington, (Williamstown, MA, Corner House Publishers, 1976).

Burgoyne, Bruce, trans., Diaries of a Hessian Chaplain & the Chaplain's Assistant, (Pensauken, NJ, Johannes Schwam Historical Assoc., Inc., 1990).

Donehoo, George P., ed., Pennsylvania History, Vol III, (New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Co. Inc., 1926).

Drury, Clifford Merril, The History of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy - Volume One - 1778-1939, (Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, 1948).

Feltman, Lieut. William, The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman, (Phila., Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1853 - Reprinted by Arno Press, 1969).

Garrison, Webb, Great Stories of the American Revolution, (Nashville, Rutledge Hill Press, 1990).

Griffin, Martin I.J., Catholics and the American Revolution, (Ridley Park, PA, Martin Griffin, 1907).

Headly, Joel Tyler, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution, (New York, Charles Scribner, 1864).

Higgenbothan, Don, The War of American Independence - Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices 1763-1794, (New York, MacMillan Co., 1971).

"Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society" 9:2, (June 1917).

Pennsylvania Archives, Vol 12 — Colonial Series.

Rogers, Truett, Bibles and Battle Drums, (Valley Forge, Judson Press, 1976).

Sloan, Irving J., comp. & ed., The Jews in America 1621-1970, (Dobbs Ferry, NY, Oceana Publications Inc., 1971).

Thompson, Parker C. From Its European Antecedants To 1791 - The United States Army Chaplancy, (Washington, DC., Department of the Army, 1978).

Ward, Christopher, The War of the Revolution, Vol II, (New York, The MacMillan Company, 1952).

Williams, Eugene Franklin, Soldiers of God - The Chaplains of the Revolutionary War, (New York, Carlton Press, Inc., 1975).

Copyright © 1996 James E. Newell. All rights reserved.