Battling Irreligion in the Ranks
Everyone agreed: profanity, drunkenness, neglect of the Sabbath, and disrespect for the clergy were widespread among Continental soldiers. This contrasted sharply with the high moral ground upon which the war was being fought, and Christian Revolutionaries deplored the contrast.
DEVOUT SOLDIERS and chaplains were also troubled by the false bravado toward death, which they interpreted as sinful hardening. At one New York prison camp where the mortality rate was particularly steep, a visitor found men “preparing to lay down for the night . . . most of them, laughing and bantering each other with apparent pleasantry about which of them would be dead the next morning. One would say, ‘I am much stouter than you, and I will have your blanket.’ ‘No,’ would be the reply, ‘I am much heartier than you and stand the best chance of seeing you carried out feet foremost.’ ”
Historian Charles Royster has said, “To be a good chaplain was even more difficult than to be a good company grade officer.” Royster, professor of history at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, is author of “A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783” (University of North Carolina, 1979). In one chapter, from which this article is excerpted with permission, he talks about the challenging work of Revolutionary War chaplains.
Visiting the Dying
The conscientious chaplain had two main duties: “divine service”—two Sunday sermons, as well as prayers and addresses on special occasions—and private worship or consolation with soldiers, especially the sick and the dying. In their hospital visits, the chaplains did almost as much good for the soldiers as the doctors could and much more than the officers. Chaplain Ebenezer David said, “I have ever found the chaplains’ visits taken well by the sick.”
The journals and memoirs of doctors, officers, and enlisted men record few visits by junior officers to their sick men. Captain Alexander Graydon probably spoke for many of them when he explained why he had avoided the imprisoned Continentals in New York City, who faced a choice between pestilence and enlistment in the British army: “I once, and once only, ventured to penetrate into these abodes of human misery and despair. But to what purpose [should I] repeat my visit when I had neither relief to administer nor comfort to bestow? What could I say to the unhappy victims who appealed to me for assistance or sought my advice as to the alternative of death or apostasy? . . . I rather chose to turn my eye from a scene I could not meliorate, to put from me a calamity which mocked my power of alleviation.”
Many chaplains probably followed a similar course, but others visited the sick daily, joked or prayed with them, and listened to monologues like that of a “very sick youth from Massachusetts,” who asked Ammi Robbins “to save him if possible, said he was not fit to die, says, ‘I cannot die. Do, sir, pray for me. Will you not send for my mother? If she were here to nurse me, I could get well. O my mother! How I wish I could see her! She was opposed to my enlisting, I am now very sorry. Do let her know I am sorry.’ ” Robbins said he “endeavored to point him to the only source of peace, prayed, and left him,” and then commented, “he cannot live long.”
Chaplains also helped do generals’ work in sermons and addresses. Commanders required soldiers to attend divine service; one punishment for absence was digging up stumps. State militia Colonel Benjamin Cleaveland, a former Continental Army officer, wanted prisoners of war as well as soldiers to attend services; so the loyalist Lieutenant Anthony Allaire heard “a Presbyterian sermon, truly adapted to their principles and the times—or rather, stuffed as full of republicanism as their camp is of horse thieves.”
A commander might suggest the text for a sermon and urge a chaplain to “dwell a little more on politics” if he was one of the few who failed to do so. After Chaplain Benjamin Boardman had preached on Jehoshaphat’s prayer for God’s help against invaders, Colonel Samuel Wyllys thanked him and “said it was the best sermon he had ever heard upon the occasion and troubles of the day.”
The surviving sermons strive to attain a very demanding ideal: to nourish and justify the hopes for America’s future that made soldiers fight the British, to foster individual courage in the face of both suffering and combat, to celebrate the unity of courageous men in a just cause, to awaken soldiers’ watchfulness for the signs of their own salvation, and to encourage the orderly conduct of a disciplined soldier and an upright Christian.
When Chaplain Ammi Robbins preached on the escape of Lot from Sodom, one listener said that his preaching “was all life and engagedness.” Chaplain Israel Evans, preaching to the New York Line and Lafayette’s Light Infantry, said, “Could my influence reach as far as my wishes are extended—could I appear before the inhabitants of the United States in all the irresistible majesty of ancient elocution; could I wield the thunder of Demosthenes, and arrest the lightning of Pericles—how should the nerves of opposition to our country be withered, and every American be fired into a patriot or a soldier.”
The Most Difficult Task
For the most part, Evans’s goals as a chaplain, like those of other chaplains, were the kinds of inspiration Americans expected their generals to achieve. And just as Revolutionaries at home felt dissatisfied with generals, so commanders and soldiers found chaplains wanting. Although Washington kept his own religious views private and rarely referred to God or to Christ, he set great store by religious exercises and able chaplains for the army. He too complained of chaplains’ neglect of their duties and was rumored to have a low opinion of many of them.
When we compare the demands made on chaplains with those made on other officers, and when we study the recorded services of individual chaplains, we can hardly conclude that they were singularly derelict. We can suspect that chaplains bore a large part of the Continental Army’s displeasure when soldiers and officers found that war life was not as consistently inspiring, orderly, or tolerable as they wished.
Despite the most blatant contradictory facts, ministers had to remain spokesmen for the promise. On Thanksgiving Day, 1777, private Joseph Martin’s unit, which had not been paid since August, heard a sermon they could not properly attend to because they wanted a “fine Thanksgiving dinner” but had received “half a gill [about two ounces] of rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar!!”
The preacher’s text “upon the happy occasion” was John the Baptist’s advice to soldiers, which ministers treated as an injunction to discipline—“Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely” [Luke 3:14]. For some reason, the preacher left out the next clause; it would have been, Martin later said, “too apropos.” But as soon as the service ended, a hundred soldiers shouted, “And be content with your wages!”
Many chaplains, like many officers, responded to this stress by neglecting their duty. Others, by word and example, led the Revolutionaries’ efforts to reconcile deeds with dreams.
“I pray,” Chaplain Hezekiah Smith wrote to his wife, “that my preaching may be attended with power.” The new recruits of 1780 were coming into “Continental Village” at Peekskill, New York. General John Nixon’s brigade had been so scattered during the summer that religious services had stopped. Now they would resume. Like his eloquent sermons against profanity and on Arnold’s treason, Smith’s prayer represented the renewed hope for the army’s achievement of ideal conduct following yet another failure.
This was the conscientious chaplain’s most important and difficult task: making an ideal seem attainable to men who were failing short of its demands. After hearing a sermon by Smith in 1775, Lieutenant Benjamin Craft said, “He preached exceedingly well, and I wish I had a heart to profit by what I heard.”
By Charles Royster
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #50 in 1996]
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