You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chaplains of the Revolutionary War

Susan F. Craft

By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability and expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, altho' death was levelling my companions on every side.                            George Washington, letter to John A. Washington, Jul. 18, 1755

       Possibly because of his close encounters with death, General George Washington understood the meaning of the Bible verse, II Corinthians 12:9, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
George Washington praying
     Washington was a Christian who regularly attended church, read his Bible, and gave to missionary organizations. Often, he would leave his military camps on Sundays to attend the services of any church he could find, no matter which denomination. Prayer was a big part of his life, and he was often seen riding into the woods to find a solitary spot to pray, or found in his private quarters on his knees with the Bible opened.
     Washington recognized the need for clergy in the military for encouragement, admonishment, and comfort, and he empathized with the men’s desire for spiritual guidance and instruction in understanding Biblical concepts such as the grace he personally experienced. Consequently, he was a champion of the establishment of a chaplaincy corps.
     After the battle at Lexington and Concord, many pastors enlisted in the Continental Army and encouraged the men in their congregations to follow suit. In its infancy, the chaplaincy service was not organized as some clergy were commissioned by the army, some by governors, and some were aligned with militias.
American Chaplaincy Corps
Chaplain Joel Barlow
     July 29, 1775, is considered the official birthday of the American Chaplaincy Corps when Congress recognized chaplains in the national army with a rank equal to that of a captain and with a monthly pay of twenty dollars.
     In August 1775, General Washington reported that fifteen chaplains were serving twenty-three regiments and that twenty-nine regiments did not have a chaplain. In September, there were twenty regiments supplied and twenty vacancies. The situation worsened, and by January 9, 1776, there were only nine chaplains and eighteen vacancies. Because Washington thought that chaplains weren’t paid enough, he suggested assigning a chaplain for each two regiments as a means of doubling the salary.
     Chaplains usually served six months. Some served during the week and returned home each weekend. Some were responsible for paying for their temporary replacements back home. Although officers without rank, they had no specified uniform, but did bear arms, at least the sword of an officer and a gentleman, and occasionally a firearm.
     Routinely, chaplains conducted services, offered Holy Communion, acted as representatives of God, prayed with the men before a march and before roll call at night, and they comforted the wounded. Some served as surgeons. They also officiated at funerals and performed marriages.
Chaplain James Caldwell
     One of the most notable chaplains during the Revolutionary War was Chaplain James Caldwell, a Presbyterian immortalized in Bret Harte’s poem, The Rebel High Priest. Caldwell’s wife was shot and killed by Hessians, and his church was burned by Tories. At the battle of Springfield, NJ, on June 23, 1780, when the Patriots stopped firing because they had run out of paper for wadding, Caldwell ran into a local Presbyterian church and brought out Watts Hymnals, and, according to the poem, he yelled, “Put Watts into ’em,—Boys, give ’em Watts!”
    Another chaplain, a young man named Joab Trout, became known for his sermons, in particular the sermon he preached on September 11, 1777, before the Battle of Brandywine, near Chadds Ford, the present-day West Chester, PA.
     I must admit, Chaplain Trout’s eloquent words touched my heart so much that when I read it, I felt myself being transported to that camp as if I were among the soldiers sitting at his feet, nervous, afraid, yearning for comfort, encouragement, and inspiration.
     The entire sermon, which can be found in the New Hampshire State Archives, is too long for me to copy in this post, so I have chosen excerpts that moved me the most.

     Soldiers and Countrymen: We have met this evening perhaps for the last time. We have shared the toil of march, the peril of flight, and the dismay of the retreat; alike we have endured the cold and hunger, the contumely of the internal foe and the courage of foreign oppression. We have sat, night after night, beside the campfire; we have together heard the roll of the reveille which called us to duty, or the beat of the tattoo which gave the signal for the hardy sleep of the soldier with the earth for his bed and knapsack for his pillow.
     And now, soldiers and brethren, we have met in the peaceful valley on the eve of battle while the sunlight is dying away behind yonder heights, the sunlight that, tomorrow morn, will glimmer on scenes of blood. We have met amid the whitening tents of our encampment, in time of terror and gloom, have gathered together, God grant it may not be the last time.
     It is a solemn moment, Brethren, does not the voice of nature seem to echo the sympathies of the hour? The flag of our country droops heavily from yonder staff; the breeze has died away along the green plains of Chadd's Ford--the heights of the Brandywine arise gloomily beyond yonder stream--all nature pauses in solemn silence, on the eve of tomorrow.
     Soldiers, I look around upon your familiar faces with a strange interest. Tomorrow morning we will go forth to battle, for I need not tell you that your unworthy minister will march with you, invoking God's aid in the fight--we will march forth to battle! Need I exhort you to fight the good fight, to fight for your homesteads, for your wives and children? I might urge you by galling memories of British wrongs; I might paint all this again in the vivid colors of the terrible reality, if I thought your courage needed such wild excitement. But I know you are strong in the might of the Lord. You will march forth to battle on the morrow with light hearts and determined spirits, though the duty of avenging the dead may rest heavy on your souls.
     And in the hour of battle, when all around is lit by the lurid cannonade-glare, and the piercing musket-flash, when the wounded strew the ground, and the dead litter your path, then remember that God is with you; God the awful and infinite fights for you and will triumph Great Father, we bow before thee, we invoke thy blessing, we deprecate thy wrath, we thee return thanks for the past, we ask thy aid for the future; for we are in times of trouble, O Lord, and sore beset by foes, merciless and unpitying. The sword gleams over our land, the dust of the sod is dampened with the blood of our neighbors and friends. O God of mercy, we pray thy blessing upon the American arms. Make the man of our hearts strong in thy wisdom; bless, we beseech thee, with renewed life and strength, our hope and thy instrument, even George Washington. Shower thy counsels on the Honorable the Continental Congress. Visit the tents of our host, comfort the soldier in his wounds and afflictions; nerve him for the fight and prepare him for the hour of death. And in the hour of defeat, O God of hosts, do thou be our stay, and in the hour of triumph be thou our guide. Teach us to be merciful. Though the memory of galling wrongs be at our hearts knocking for admittance, that they may fill us with the desire of revenge, yet let us, O Lord, spare the vanquished, though they never spared us. In the hour of death do thou guide us to the abode prepared for the blest. So shall we return thanks to thee through Christ our Redeemer. God prosper the cause. Amen.

Sadly, Chaplain Joab Trout did not survive the battle.
US Army chaplain prays with soldiers