Wesley’s Low Opinion of Army Chaplains

As I described in Wesley and the Second Jacobite Rebellion, John Wesley found himself in the city of Newcastle in 1745, the likely target of an attack by a rebel army. Most of the English army was deployed to the continent of Europe. Only a handful of regular troops were available for the defense of England and King George II. One of the greatest dangers to the English cause, Wesley believed, was the immoral conduct of the English soldiers. On October 26, 1745, Wesley wrote the mayor of Newcastle, asking him to express his concerns with the general who commanded the English forces.

My soul has been pained day by day, even in walking the streets of Newcastle, at the senseless, shameless wickedness, the ignorant profaneness, of the poor men to whom our lives are entrusted. The continual cursing and swearing, the wanton blasphemy of the soldiers in general, must needs be a torture to the sober ear, whether of a Christian or an honest infidel. Can any that either fear God, or love their neighbor, hear this without concern? especially if they consider the interest of our country, as well as of these unhappy men themselves. For can it be expected that God should be on their side who are daily affronting Him to His face? And if God be not on their side, how little will either their number, or courage, or strength avail?

And then comes the punch in the gut for military chaplains (although Wesley never explicitly identifies them as such).

Is there no man that careth for these souls?  Doubtless there are some who ought so to do. But many of these, if I am rightly informed, receive large pay and do just nothing.

Ouch.

Wesley goes on to offer his own services to the English army.

I would to God it were in my power, in any degree, to supply their lack of service. I am ready to do what in me lies to call these poor sinners to repentance, once or twice a day (while I remain in these parts), at any hour, or at any place.  And I desire no pay at all for doing this; unless what my Lord shall give at His appearing. Having myself no knowledge of the General, I took the liberty to make this offer to you. I have no interest herein; but I should rejoice to serve, as I am able, my King and country. If it be judged that this will be of no real service, let the proposal die and be forgotten. But I beg you, Sir, to believe that I have the same glorious cause, for which you have shown so becoming a zeal, earnestly at heart; and that therefore I am, with warm respect, Sir, your most obedient servant.

What the English soldiers needed, for their own sake and for the sake of King George, was a change of heart. They needed to repent. And in order to repent, they needed preaching. That’s what the clergy attached to the English army should be doing, Mr. Wesley believed. And if they won’t do it, he’s willing to do it himself – twice a day if necessary.

The mayor agreed to convey Wesley’s offer to the military authorities. On November 4, Wesley left Newcastle, “Having delivered my own soul.” I wonder if he received a letter that began, “Dear Mr. Wesley, Thank you for your interest in national defense.”

In the state-church environment of 18th century England, Wesley believed that clergy attached to the army played an important but indirect role in the survival of the empire. Godless soldiers were a threat to the king. “For can it be expected that God should be on their side who are daily affronting Him to His face? And if God be not on their side, how little will either their number, or courage, or strength avail?”

Of course, for Wesley, the most significant reason to evangelize soldiers was for the benefit of the soldiers themselves. If their sinful behavior was an indirect threat to the king, it was a very direct threat to their salvation. Soldiers needed what everyone else needed: true repentance, faith and holiness, all empowered by the grace of God.

And perhaps I should be clear, in relating the events of 1745, I am describing something that happened 270 years ago in a religious and political circumstances very different than our own. I would love to sit down and have a conversation with Mr. Wesley about how military chaplains might function in the contemporary religious and political environment of the United States.

Wesley himself served as something of an ad-hoc army chaplain during his sojourn in Georgia in 1735. You can read more about that in one of my first blog posts: John Wesley, Military Chaplain.

In a future post, I will examine some of Mr. Wesley’s own encounters with soldiers throughout his preaching ministry.

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