Chaplains of the Revolutionary War
- Friday, June 11, 2010
While the Continental Army was engaged in winning America's freedom from England during the Revolutionary War, its army chaplains labored to win the souls of the colonial soldiers for Jesus Christ. The chaplains held services, distributed Bibles, visited the sick, and helped sustain troop morale. They were often exposed to the dangers of the battlefield and the deprivations of the army encampments. Here are the stories of just a few of these little-known Christian heroes.
A Unique Use for a Hymnal
Rev. James Caldwell was a Presbyterian minister who served the Continental Army as a chaplain between the years 1776 and 1781. When his company ran out of musket wadding at the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, Caldwell ran to the nearby Presbyterian Church and carried several Isaac Watts hymnals to the troops. He is reported to have shouted, "Now put Watts into them, boys!"
Caldwell was called "The Rebel Priest" and "The High Priest of the Rebellion" by the British, who offered a reward for his capture. After his church was burned to the ground by Tories, Caldwell started preaching with his pistols lying on the pulpit, one on each side of his Bible.
Caldwell was intrepid in the face of enemy threats to his safety, but was much more concerned by the threat to his family. These concerns were well founded. While he was away on a mission, his wife was shot by a British soldier in front of their children, and his house was destroyed. James was devastated by the death of his wife, and met his own death the following year in service to his country.
Surgeons and Ministers
On May 27, 1777, Congress appointed one chaplain to each brigade, with the same pay and rations as an army colonel. They often bore arms, and several chaplains who had professional medical training also served as surgeons. One such chaplain was David Avery, who owed his conversion to the ministry of George Whitefield. After his conversion, Avery was determined to further his education and become a minister. He entered Yale as a freshman in 1765 in the same class as Timothy Dwight, a brilliant thirteen-year-old who would also later serve as an army chaplain. Trained as a surgeon as well as a minister, Avery brought his own medicine and instruments to supplement what was lacking in the Army's supplies. He was reported to be "intrepid and fearless in battle, unwearied in his attentions to the sick and wounded." David suffered the hardships and deprivations of army life with a cheerful attitude, no doubt bolstered by his patriotism and love for his country. It was said that he was "everything Washington wanted in a chaplain." Avery often rode with General George Washington and took meals with him.
Committed to God's Service
Avery's fellow-student, Timothy Dwight, graduated from Yale at the age of seventeen. After his conversion at age nineteen, he committed himself to God's service. He was licensed as a minister in 1777 at the age of 25, and soon after, offered his services to the army as chaplain. Dwight was assigned to the Parson's brigade, a regiment commanded by General Putnam.
Timothy Dwight quickly gained the respect of both the General and his army. After Putnam led his men to a key victory on October 7, 1777, Dwight preached a memorable message to the General and his principal officers. His text was Joel 2:20, which states: "I will remove far off from you the northern army." Both the General and his officers were delighted by this message and its perceived significance regarding their recent victory. Putnam, however, believed that Dwight had taken the liberty of revising the text to make his point. When an officer brought a Bible to show Putnam that his chaplain had not altered the words, Putnam exclaimed: "Well, there is every thing in that book, and Dwight knows just where to lay his finger on it."
Timothy Dwight left the army to pastor churches in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He was elected president of Yale College in 1795 and went on to become one of America's theological leaders.
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