Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution Intro and Part 1

The Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution

by  Chaplain (COL-Ret) John W. Brinsfield


Chaplain John Hurt, 6th Virginia Regiment, at Valley Forge 1777

Copyright 2023 by John W. Brinsfield All rights reserved








Part One                        Answering the Call: Lexington and Concord

Part Two                       Waiting for Congress to Act

Part Three                     Prelude to Bunker Hill

Part Four                       Bunker Hill- The Battle That Changed the War

Part Five                        Gen. Washington, His Chaplains and the Boston Siege Line

Part Six                         Chaplain Appointments by Congress

Part Seven                     Gen. Washington’s Brilliant Victory at Boston

Part Eight                      Launching the Canadian Expedition

Part Nine                       A Costly Journey to Canada

Part Ten                        American Disaster at Quebec

Part Eleven                    Preparing for Victory in South Carolina

Part Twelve                   Let the Guns Best Served Decide!

Part Thirteen                Reflections on 1775 and 1776:  Azimuths for the Country and the Chaplaincy



There have been two histories of patriot chaplains in the American Revolution that are still used as reference books: Joel T. Headley’s  Chaplains and Clergy of the American Revolution (1864) and Parker C. Thompson’s From Its European Antecedents to 1791: The United States Army Chaplaincy (1978). Headley’s was largely biographical; Thompson’s was both chronological and thematic. In this brief treatment, covering the years 1775-1776, I have attempted to emphasize the context of the chaplains’ ministries by noting their interdependence with their commanders and soldiers during the campaigns and battles from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Charleston, S0uth Carolina. It is a story of mutual courage under fire.

All illustrations are in the public domain and are attributed where known.

Accordingly, I have dedicated the following pages to the late Chaplain (COL-Ret) Parker C. Thompson, D.Min. Chaplain Thompson was a combat chaplain in the Korean War and a Division Chaplain in Vietnam. He came home with multiple Purple Hearts and a love of Chaplain Corps history. He was the author of the first volume of the 1977-1978 History of the United States Army Chaplaincy. His work remains the most-often quoted reference for Army Chaplain history during the period of the American Revolution.

John W. Brinsfield                                                                                                                                                 Chaplain (Colonel-Ret) USA Army

Chaplain Corps Historian 2002-2011

The Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution

by Chaplain (COL-Ret) John W. Brinsfield

Introduction: Points of Light

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale


The leading advocate and proponent for the inclusion of chaplains in the Continental Army was General George Washington. In fact, there are over fifty references in George Washington’s letters regarding the appointment, pay, and value of military chaplains “to animate the Soldiery and Impress them with a Knowledge of the important rights as we are contending for…holding forth the Necessity of courage and bravery and at the same time of Obedience and Subordination to those in Command.”[1]

Washington’s interest in including military chaplains within the establishment of the Continental Army was not just a result of his own dedication to his religious faith, although Washington did believe that “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary” to crown “our arms with complete success.”[2] There were some very practical reasons for assigning chaplains to regiments and later, to brigades. Among these were the roles eighteenth century clergy played in educational, social and moral leadership in civilian as well as in military organizations.

No other professional group, with the possible exception of lawyers, had as much effect on public opinion as did the clergy. Many meeting houses doubled as places of worship and political activity in the colonies. Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts blamed many of his troubles there in 1773 on “Mr. [Samuel] Adams and his black clergy,” while Governor Sir James Wright of Georgia complained in a letter to Lord Dartmouth in 1776 that he was surrounded by clerics “of Cromwellian sympathies.”[3]  On July 23, 1775, John Adams informed his wife, Abigail, that “The clergy of all denominations here [in Philadelphia] preached upon politics and war in a manner that I have never heard in New England.”[4]

Ministers not only preached against the policies of Great Britain, they also published letters and articles in newspapers criticizing the Crown. The Rev. Richard Furman, pastor of the Santee Baptist Church in South Carolina, wrote a personal “Address on Liberty,” circulated by the patriot militia throughout the countryside. Furman accused the “British Legislature” of laying taxes on Americans that “would be effectual to the enslaving” of them all.[5]  William Tennent III of the prominent Tennent family of New Jersey, published a letter in The South Carolina and American General Gazette in which he called British General Gage, Governor of Massachusetts, a “Turkish Bashaw” whose oppression caused unrest and troops to be sent to America.[6]

Yet these political diatribes paled in comparison to the sermons by some chaplains in the field. One example comes from a sermon delivered by Chaplain Thomas Allen of New Hampshire at Fort Ticonderoga, New York, in June of 1777:

Valiant soldiers! Yonder (pointing to the enemy that lay in sight) are the enemies of your country, who have come to lay waste, and destroy, and spread havoc and devastation through this pleasant land. They are enemies hired to do the work of death, and have no motive to animate them in their undertaking. You have every consideration to induce you to play the man, and act the part of valiant soldiers. Your country looks up to you for its defence. You are contending for your wives, whether you or they shall enjoy them. You are fighting for your children, whether they shall be yours or theirs – your houses and lands – for your flocks and herds, for your freedom, for future generations, for everything that is great and noble, on account of which only life itself is worth a fig.  I must recommend to you the strictest attention to your duty, and the most punctual obedience to your officers. Discipline, order and regularity are the strength of an army.

VALIANT SOLDIERS! Should our enemy attack us, I exhort and conjure you to play the man. Let no danger appear too great – let no suffering appear too severe for you to encounter for your bleeding country.[7]


Another value added aspect of including chaplains in the establishment of the Continental Army was their ability to recruit volunteers. With a monopoly on their pulpits and politics, ministers could, and did, encourage enlistments from their congregations. After a few stirring sermons finding volunteers was not difficult. The Rev. Nathaniel Eells, pastor of the Congregational Church at Stonington, Connecticut, recruited a company of men during his sermon and then was elected Captain when they mustered on the town green.[8] The Rev. Peter Muhlenberg, pastor at Woodstock, Virginia, announced to his congregation that he had been commissioned a colonel to raise a regiment to serve with General Washington. Some 162 men volunteered in less than thirty minutes.[9]

Some chaplains and ministers backed up their recruitment by taking up arms and fighting with their troops. Chaplain Joseph Thaxter, the Rev. Dr. Phillips Payson and the Rev. Edward Brooks during the British retreat from Lexington, the Rev. John Martin at Bunker Hill, Chaplain Benjamin Trumbull in Connecticut, the Rev. Peter Muhlenberg and Chaplain Robert Smith at Charleston, South Carolina, are a few examples. These clergymen were not in disobedience to the Geneva Conventions nor to Army Chaplain Corps doctrine because these guidelines did not yet exist. Emmerich Vattel’s Law of Nations, published in 1758 and known to the Continental Congress, was silent on the subject of clergy taking up arms.[10]

As a part of their work, General Washington expected chaplains to  reinforce military discipline which he phrased as “Obedience and Subordination to those in Command.”[11]  Every Monday morning, when the soldiers were in camp and if there were no other officers present, chaplains were required to read the laws of land warfare to the troops.[12] Chaplains were also asked to discourage swearing (which might offend Providence and cost them a victory), stealing (which was a serious breach of the eighth Commandment from the Bible), and drunkenness (which was contrary to military law.)

General Washington was not insensitive to the pastoral role of chaplains to support the mental, moral, and spiritual condition of soldiers. At Valley Forge, in February, 1778, the General commended Chaplain Abiel Leonard for his pastoral work. Such service was important at that time, for 3,000 soldiers were on sick call, 4,000 men had no blankets, rations were reduced to one cup of flour, one pinch of salt, and lots of cold water, and 1,134 soldiers were listed as deserters.[13] Fortunately Chaplain Leonard was not alone. At least eight other chaplains were with him at Valley Forge.[14] Washington also urged his chaplains to visit the men in hospitals although it became obvious over time that more full-time hospital chaplains were needed. [15]

If there was a revolutionary change to the way chaplains were assigned to the army, it involved matching the various denominations of the chaplains to those of the soldiers. In New England, often militiamen marched to war with their Congregational pastors who became chaplains by default. In other colonies there was a mixture of Presbyterian, Anglican, and Baptist soldiers as well as those who professed no denominational affiliation. Mindful that almost all British chaplains were Anglicans, when General Washington was asked in 1777 if he favored one chaplain for each brigade (of multiple regiments) or one chaplain for each regiment, he replied that he preferred regimental chaplains. That was because it “gives every Regiment an Opportunity of having a chaplain of their own religious Sentiments, it is founded on a plan of a more generous toleration.”[16]

No matter what General Washington wanted, however, the ultimate authority for certifying chaplain positions in the army rested with the Second Continental Congress, and especially with a committee entitled the Continental Board of War and Ordnance, chaired by John Adams of Massachusetts. The War Office was on Market Street in Philadelphia, two blocks from the State House. The members of the Board included Adams, Benjamin Harrison (Virginia), Edward Rutledge (South Carolina), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), and James Wilson (Pennsylvania). These gentlemen reviewed requests for appointing officers as well as providing pay, provisions, and anything else the army and navy required—including chaplains.[17] The Board then forwarded their recommendations to Congress for approval. Since Congress could not tax citizens directly, they had to hope that the states would raise money to fund their requests on their own.

Although early in the war chaplains were appointed to regiments, Congress found it cheaper to assign chaplains to brigades composed of several regiments. Aside from a starting compensation of $20 per month, chaplains had to depend on their commanders for anything else they might need—including tentage and rations. Evidently there was never enough money to provide chaplains with distinctive uniforms, so most wore civilian or black ecclesiastical clothing unless they purchased a uniform themselves .[18]


By the Numbers

Regarding the number of Revolutionary War chaplains who served in American Continental and militia units during the conflict, 218 are known by name and most of those by unit.[19]  Another 16 clergy ministered to American soldiers but were not recognized as unit chaplains. The patriot chaplains as a whole represented approximately ten percent of the available clergy in the 13 colonies.

Denominationally, ninety-nine percent of the chaplains whose faith groups are known were from Protestant faith groups: Congregationalist (52%), Presbyterian (23%), Anglican (12%), Baptist (6%), Reformed (4%), and Lutheran (2%). There was one Roman Catholic priest, Father Louis Lotbiniere from Canada, and one Universalist pastor, John Murray, from Rhode Island, who served with American forces.[20]

Not surprisingly 79% of the chaplains were from Calvinistic faith groups. Fifty-six percent were from four New England states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.  Of those whose educational background is known, 119 graduated from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, and the future University of Pennsylvania. Six were graduates of William and Mary, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, and Trinity College, Dublin. Some 14 were privately tutored, but in all 80% of the above referenced chaplains attended Congregational or Presbyterian colleges.

One might imagine that these “Ivy League” chaplains would have preferred to stay away from the filth and disease of the camps as well as from the chaos of battle. That does not seem to have been the case. Most were with their units in heavy combat at Bunker Hill, Brandywine, Monmouth, Saratoga, Charleston, and Yorktown. The statistics confirm that of the 218 chaplains known by name, 25 died during the war or 11.4% of the whole. That is the greatest percentage of chaplain fatalities for any of America’s wars—to date.

Late in the deployment of the Continental Army, General Washington issued his last order to his chaplains,

  • “The Commander in Chief desires and expects the Chaplains to constantly attend the sick, and while they are thus publickly and privately engaged in performing the sacred duties of their office, they may depend upon his utmost encouragement and support on all occasions, that they will be considered in a very respectable point of light by the whole army.”

Gen. Washington, General Orders, 15 Feb 1783


Washington did not forget his chaplains. Eight years later, on March 4, 1791, President Washington nominated John Hurt, a veteran of Valley Forge and a former prisoner of war, to be the first chaplain of the Regular Army of the United States.[21]


[1] John C. Fitzpatrick, Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1931), I, 498 and Index.

[2] Henry Whiting, ed., Revolutionary Orders of General Washington (London: Sparks and Sons, 1844), pp. 74-75.

[3] John W. Brinsfield, “Those Doughty Chaplains of the American Revolution, Revisited,” Military Chaplains’ Review, Summer, 1974, p.35.

[4]Charles Francis Adams (ed.) The Familiar Letters of John Adams (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876) p.84.

[5] Manuscript in the Furman Collection, Furman University Library, Greenville, SC.

[6] John Wesley Brinsfield, Religion and Politics in Colonial South Carolina (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1983), p. 80.

[7] Parker C. Thompson, From Its European Antecedents to 1791: The United States Army Chaplaincy (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Chaplains, 1978), p. 282. Chaplain Thompson has other examples of Revolutionary War Chaplain prayers and sermons in Appendix VIII.

[8] Ibid., pp. 103-104.

[9] Ibid., p. 128.

[10] Charles G. Fenwick, (ed.) The Law of Nations, (Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Institute, 1916), p. 254.

[11] John C. Fitzpatrick, Op.cit., IV, 164.

[12] Colonel Aaron Barlow’s “Book of Orders,” Rare Book Collection, U.S. Military Academy Library, West Point, New York.

[13] John W. Brinsfield, “Our Roots for Ministry: The Continental Army, General Washington, and the Free Exercise of Religion,” Military Chaplains’ Review, Fall 1987, p. 28.

[14] Parker C. Thompson, Op.cit. p. 157. Congregational Chaplains David Avery and John Ellis; Baptist Chaplains Ebenezer David, John Gano, William Rogers, Hezekiah Smith,  Charles Thompson. and Anglican John Hurt were at Valley Forge as well.

[15] The Rev.Robert Smith served as chaplain to the 1st South Carolina Regiment and then as chaplain of the Continental Army Hospital in Charleston, S.C. during the 1780 siege. He was named Chaplain General of the Southern Department with primary responsibility for the hospitals in the South before the war ended.  In 1795 Smith was consecrated as the first Episcopal bishop of South Carolina. Parker C. Thompson, Op.cit., p.171.

[16] Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States (New York: Harper and Bros., 1950), I, 271. This sentiment eventually contributed to the free exercise clause in the Constitution of the United States. Brinsfield, “Our Roots for Ministry,” pp. 30-31.

[17] David McCullough, John Adams ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), pp. 120, 140.

[18] Parker C. Thompson, Op.cit. pp. 94-95.

[19] Ibid. pp. 245-267.

[20] Ibid., p. 259.

[21] John C. Fitzpatrick, Op.cit. , XXXI, p. 228.

The Commanders and Chaplains of the American Revolution

Part One: Answering the Call

Lexington, Massachusetts 19 April 1775


The Rev. Jonas Clarke, pastor of the Church of Christ in Lexington, Massachusetts, could not have dreamed that an international conflict involving four European nations would begin on the Lexington Green on April 19, 1775 with a muster of 70 militiamen. Clarke, a graduate of Harvard and a pastor for twenty years, had extended an invitation to his wife’s cousin, the Hon. John Hancock, and to Mr. Samuel Adams to seek shelter at his parsonage while the British searched for leaders of the rebellion fermenting in Boston.

General Thomas Gage, the Military Governor of Massachusetts, had ordered “a vigorous Exertion of Force” to destroy any gunpowder and armaments at Concord and to seize the ringleaders behind the protests. This action would constitute a “signal for Hostilities.” Gage added that whatever resistance might be offered by the Massachusetts militia “cannot be very formidable.”[1]

Meanwhile, on the same morning, the Rev. William Emerson, pastor of the Church in Concord, seven miles away from Lexington, received the alarm that 700 British soldiers were marching down the Bay Road from Boston. William, a relatively young man at age 32, had been the pastor at Concord for ten years. His parsonage, or manse, was adjacent to the bridge that arched over the river. William told his wife, Phebe, to prepare the house as a hospital. Then he went out to meet the assembling local militia.




British Troops Leaving Boston                     Concord: The North Bridge


As the news of British soldiers closing on Lexington and Concord spread through the hills and valleys of New England, local minutemen, the militia’s ready reaction force, gathered by the hundreds. From towns as far away as North Easton, 37 miles from Lexington, fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, and friends marched with their rifles, muskets, or fowling pieces to drive the British back to Boston. Estimates of their numbers range from 2,000 to 3,500—at least three times the size of the initial British force.

Militia chaplains accompanied their soldiers throughout the fight. The Rev. Joseph Thaxter, armed with a brace of pistols, met William Emerson at the Concord Bridge. Chaplain Caleb Prentiss came from Wakefield, and Chaplain Isaac Morrill from Wilmington. The Rev. Dr. Phillips Payson from Chelsea led a party from his own parish in a successful attack on the British regulars, killing some and taking the rest prisoner. The Rev. Joseph Penniman of Bedford decided that his prayers were better than his presence. Penniman prayed, “We beseech Thee to send the British soldiers where they will do some good; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that we have no use for them about here.”[2]

By the end of that day, which saw continual attacks along the 20-mile march, 94 colonists lay dead, wounded or missing. The British regulars suffered 65 dead and 207 wounded or missing—one third the number that had set out from Boston some eighteen hours earlier.[3] General Gage was wrong—the militia was formidable, as they would go on to prove at Bunker Hill, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Yorktown.

Jonas Clarke remained at his parish in Lexington for the rest of his life and wrote a summary of the Battle of Lexington. William Emerson joined the Continental Army and served at Ft. Ticonderoga before contracting a fatal disease in camp. He died on October 20, 1775.[4]

The choices that Jonas Clarke and William Emerson made in the aftermath of the battles at Lexington and Concord were just two possibilities of several: 1) Pastors, priests and rabbis could remain at their pulpits and support or oppose the ebb and flow of the conflict as it developed; 2) Clergy could join the local militia that would contribute to the foundation of the Continental Army in just two months; 3) Some Anglicans, like the Rev. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, Chaplain to the Kings American Regiment in New York, the Rev. Edward Jenkins of Charleston, Chaplain to the South Carolina Loyalists and the Rev. Jacob Duche, Pastor to the First Continental Congress, ultimately could declare their allegiance to the British; or 4) Preachers such as the Methodist, Francis Asbury in Delaware, could foreswear violence and remain in seclusion until the contest ended.

The decisions that the spiritual leaders made were of decided importance to the leaders and people of the time. To take up arms against the King was treason. The British had the largest fleet of warships in Europe and 35 regiments of infantry and artillery ready to deploy to America in 1775 with 14 more regiments from Ireland and the West Indies as reinforcements.[5]  These did not include the 23,000 Hessian soldiers that Britain would pay to fight in the war.

The Americans needed to believe that God would bless their cause. They had no national army, navy, or recognized legislative leadership above the state level that could organize an effective resistance. There was not even a clear idea of what they were fighting for or against. Patrick Henry of Virginia had offered the idea of a new system of government independent of Great Britain, but most Americans early in the war sought reconciliation.


British Soldiers in Massachusetts               Congress at Prayer in Philadelphia


The First Continental Congress that met in October of 1774 had voted to send King George III a peace petition to repeal the Intolerable Acts that, among other things, closed the port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. To put some steel in their appeal, the First Continental Congress also voted to put an embargo on all trade with Great Britain including non-importation of slaves from British slave ships beginning on December 1, 1774.[6]  Congress also called on the various states, just in case, to set up and train their own militia units free from British control.

As a result of this petition and its embargo on trade, in 1775 King George ordered his ministers, Lord North and Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary for American Affairs, to declare the American colonies in full rebellion. The Cabinet agreed to deploy 20,000 regulars the following spring and to ask Catherine the Great of Russia if she would allow Britain to pay for 20,000 Russian troops to accompany them. The Tsarina declined to provide mercenaries. Britain would have to go to Germany with that request.[7]

As the British withdrew into Boston in April of 1775, American militia forces, numbering from 16,000 to 20,000, from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut formed a serpentine arc around the city from Chelsea through Cambridge and on to Roxbury. It was a siege by four different armies, each taking orders from its own legislature. However, General Artemas Ward was the ranking officer in Massachusetts, and the armies were on Massachusetts soil. He was supposed to be in charge.[8]

Obviously this Army of Occupation or Grand American Army as some called it, needed unity. Each of the four armies had its own logistical system for furnishing food, blankets, tents, tools and medical supplies. When food ran short, some soldiers simply took what they wanted from any suspected loyalists nearby. Sanitation became a problem and illness soon followed. Worst, there was no agreement on how to get the British out of Boston. The New Englanders did not have the size or number of artillery pieces to shell the British positions. With the British fleet in port, armed with their naval guns for covering fire, an assault on fortified positions would fail. No one knew how to attack a warship in the harbor with infantry.

While the American commanders dealt with their logistical and tactical problems, the Rev. Samuel Langdon, President of Harvard College, thought more attention should be paid to the spiritual health of the soldiers in camp. Samuel Langdon had served as a chaplain in the French and Indian War and was familiar with the problems the armies faced. Moreover, there were soldiers camping just outside and on Harvard Yard!


Rev. Samuel Langdon

In May, 1775,  Dr. Langdon attended a conference of Congregational ministers and requested volunteer chaplains for the American camps. He was rewarded with 13 volunteers who reported at Cambridge.  All of the May volunteers were Congregational ministers, or ministers of the Church of Christ as their churches were sometimes known, in part because that was the established denomination in Massachusetts. Eventually six more denominations of chaplains, including a Roman Catholic priest and a Universalist minister, would be represented in the American Army. [9]


[1] Clarence E. Carter, ed. The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage, 1763-1775 (New York, 1969) 2: 179-183.

[2] Parker C. Thompson, From Its European Antecedents to 1791, The United States Army Chaplaincy, vol. I of the History of the Army Chaplaincy (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Chaplains,1978) 92.


[3] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 32.


[4]  “A Chaplain of the Revolution,” Edward Waldo Emerson (great-grandson),1922 as cited in Jane Sciacca, National Park Service, Reverend William Emerson, 2020, –william-emerson.

[5] Parker C. Thompson, Op. cit. 229-239.

[6] Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher, “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward an Economic Interpretation of American Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly 68 (4) 597-630.

[7] John Ferling, Op. cit. 65.

[8] Ibid, 35.

[9] John W. Brinsfield, “Our Roots for Ministry: The Continental Army, General Washington, and the Free Exercise of Religion,” Military Chaplains’ Review, Fall 1987, p. 25.

Look for Part Two soon!