George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems

I spent much of the President’s Day holiday reading George Washington’s military correspondence,  written as a regimental commander in the French and Indian War (the American theater of the Seven Years War) and then as the commanding general of all continental forces in the War of American Independence (also known as the Revolutionary War). I went there looking for a quick quote on the importance of chaplains. What I found instead was a story that connects with the modern Army chaplaincy on many levels. In the next few days, I am going to publish a number of posts with extracts from Washington’s letters and orders, arranged topically. Before I begin, let me summarize some of what I found:

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General Washington and Chaplain Support of Military Ceremonies

Chaplains today frequently offer prayers at military ceremonies and other similar events. They did in Washington’s day as well. His correspondence reveal that the general frequently directed his chaplain to take part in special military observances.

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General Washington and Chaplain Support of Sunday Services

During the Revolutionary War, General Washington issued numerous orders to the army setting aside time for Sunday worship. The commander viewed worship as a universal human obligation, a duty of honor and thanksgiving that mortals owe the deity. Worship was also a means of seeking God’s favor for the nation and the army, as soldiers lifted their petitions to heaven. On the human side, worship satisfied the mind and increased human happiness. Moreover, worship reinforced morality. Immorality threatened the army with both divine disfavor and military indiscipline.

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General Washington on Chaplain Ministry to Prisoners

Washington wanted insure that condemned prisoners had access to chaplains of their own choosing. The first order to this effect is altruistic, even if assembling the whole Army to witness the executions sounds barbaric to modern ears.

The prisoners under sentence of death, to prepare for execution, to morrow at 12 o’clock—The whole Army, except General Lincoln’s division, to be assembled for this purpose, near the Artillery park—The criminals to be attended with such Chaplains, as they choose.

General Orders, 9 June 1777

The second order adds a new twist. Washington ordered a chaplain to collect intelligence in the course of his ministry to the condemned.

Sir.  There are now under sentance of death, in the provost, a Farnsworth and Blair, convicted of being spies from the enemy, and of publishing counterfeit Continental currency. It is hardly to be doubted but that these unfortunate men are acquainted with many facts respecting the enemys affairs, and their intentions which we have not been able to bring them to acknowlege. Besides the humanity of affording them the benefit of your profession, it may in the conduct of a man of sense answer another valuable purpose—And While it serves to prepare them for the other world, it will naturally lead to the intelligence we want in your inquiries into the condition of their spiritual concerns. You will therefore be pleased to take the charge of this matter upon yourself, and when you have collected in the course of your attendance such information as they can give you will transmit the whole to me.

Washington to Chaplain Alexander McWhorter, 12 October 1778

Today, by regulation, penitents have an absolute right of confidentiality with Army chaplains, and tasking chaplains to exploit their status as clergy for the purpose of intelligence collection is prohibited.

This is one chapter of the series, George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems.


General Washington on Chaplains Taken Prisoner

Beginning in 1780, General Washington began as series of correspondence related to the status of chaplains who might be taken as prisoners on the battlefield. Washington wanted both sides to release clergy captured during the conflict. The letters anticipates an understanding that will continue to mature until it comes to full fruition in in the Geneva Conventions.

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General Washington and the Tragic End of Chaplain Abiel Leonard

Abiel Leonard was a Congregational minister from Connecticut who served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. From George Washington’s correspondence, it is clear that the commanding general took a great interest in Chaplain Leonard. No other chaplain’s name appears nearly as often or as favorably in Washington’s letters and orders. Unfortunately, Chaplain Leonard’s story does not have a happy ending.

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