Chaplains of the Revolutionary War
- Friday, June 11, 2010
Facing Danger in the Service of God
Hezekiah Smith was a Baptist minister and church planter who lived in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He traveled throughout Maine and New Hampshire, preaching in remote locations that lacked spiritual leadership. His preaching led to the establishment of thirteen churches. Smith was a graduate of Princeton and, along with Isaac Backus, was active in the establishment of Rhode Island College (now Brown University).
Smith served as an Army chaplain from 1776 to 1780. He was diligent in fulfilling his duties, encouraging the soldiers and ministering to the wounded, often putting himself in danger in the process. Although he earned the respect of Washington for the manner in which he fulfilled his role as chaplain, he was first and foremost a pastor. He returned home as soon as he was released from the army to pastor his congregation in Haverhill. Smith corresponded with George Washington after the war ended, and Washington visited Hezekiah in Haverhill in 1789.
"Save Me If You Can"
One devoted chaplain, Ammi R. Robbins, wrote of his reaction when he visited the wounded. "My heart is grieved," he wrote, "as I visit the poor soldiers‚...such distress, and miserable accommodations. One very sick youth from Massachusetts asked me to save him if possible; said he was not fit to die: 'I cannot die; do, sir, pray for me.'" Although the suffering he witnessed touched his heart and roused his sympathy, he believed that the war was being fought for a just cause.
Putting Words into God's Mouth?
Despite their often selfless service and devotion to the sick and dying, the army chaplains were not always above reproof. In their defense, the sermon topics of many military chaplains were often dictated by their commanding officers. In his address to the troops at Canajoharie, New York, chaplain John Gano was asked to "dwell a little more on politics" than normal. In response, he preached to the soldiers that "[he] could aver of the truth that our Lord and Saviour approved of all those who had engaged in His service for the whole warfare." Although he was, in effect, putting words into God's mouth, the sermon did have the desired results. Those soldiers whose enlistment was only short-term were ridiculed by those who had signed on for the whole war, and in the end, many of them did re-enlist. It appears, however, that Gano did not necessarily practice what he preached. While the soldiers were quartered at Valley Forge for the brutal winter, Gano spent the time at home, since it was believed that the men were "too poorly clad to stand in the cold and listen to preaching." When he returned to the encampment, he inquired of a soldier how the men had fared. The soldier replied that they had "suffered all winter without hearing the Word of God." When Gano replied that he had only considered their comfort, the man replied, "True, but it would have been consoling to have had such a good man near us." The chaplain was deeply moved by the soldier's reply.
At the same time, Gano's patriotism and courage could not be questioned. A chaplain in Clinton's New York Brigade, he played a vital part in the battle of Chattelton's Hill. While many soldiers despaired and fled the battlefield without even firing a shot, Gano found himself at the forefront of the battle. He later commented on his actions, acknowledging his chaplain's duty to boost morale among the troops. "In this battle I somehow got to the front of the regiment, yet I durst not quit my place for fear of dampening the spirits of the soldiers or bringing on myself an imputation of cowardice."
Fearless in Fulfillment of His Duty
One chaplain, Baptist minister David Jones, also served as a missionary to the Indians of the Ohio Valley for two years. He was so outspoken about his views on the Revolutionary War that "he became obnoxious to his Tory neighbors" and was compelled to leave the Freehold Baptist Church where he served as pastor. After this episode, David Jones moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, to become the pastor of the Great Valley Baptist Church. He soon realized, however, that he needed to help the colonial struggle for freedom. He entered the army as a chaplain and served in this position until the end of the war.
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