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Chaplains of the Revolutionary War

  • 2010 6 Jun
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Chaplains of the Revolutionary War

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.

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.

It was Chaplain Jones' custom to preach as often as possible before entering battle, and he preached to the troops at Valley Forge, following the arrival of the news that France had recognized American independence. Jones served under the command of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, a Chester County native. General Wayne earned his nickname for the bravery and fearlessness he displayed on the battlefield. David Jones was a good fit with his commanding officer in this regard. He was so heroic on the battlefield that British General Howe offered a reward for his capture, and many plots were laid to capture him. In addition to his military and chaplain's duties, Jones also served as courier for General Wayne from time to time. In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, written from Ticonderoga on July 29, 1776, Wayne writes:

We are so far removed from the seat of Government of the free and independent states of America, and such an Insurmountable Barrier, Albany, between us that not one letter, or the least intelligence of anything that's doing with you can reach us. Through the medium of my Chaplain (David Jones) I hope this will reach you as he has promised to blow out any man's brains who will attempt to take it from him.

These are just a few of the men who bravely served their country as Army chaplains during the American Revolution. For every story told here, there are countless other chaplains who ministered to the courageous men who fought for the freedom our country enjoys today.

There are many memorial sites in America that are dedicated to those who fought so bravely and gave their lives in America's fight for independence. One of the most famous of these is located at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. However, another less well-known site is just a few miles away, in Chester County. The monument (pictured right) was dedicated on October 25, 1833, in memory of twenty-two Revolutionary soldiers who died in an epidemic of fever that swept through their camp in the spring of 1778. This monument to their "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence" honors "the profound regard due the individuals who paid the forfeit of their precious lives for our sacred rights, and for privileges which they were never permitted to enjoy, and to contribute to generations unborn, the memory of the precious price of the Liberty and Independence of our happy Union.