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, ...