Colonel Washington Needs a Chaplain

From 1755 to 1758, Colonel George Washington served as the commander of the First Virginia Regiment in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), a conflict that widened globally into the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The regiment consisted of about 1200 men. For much of his command, the want of a chaplain remained a persistent thorn in Washington’s side. Extracts from Washington’s correspondence with colonial leaders in Virginia tell the story.

In 1756, Washington wrote Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie that his officers wanted a chaplain so much that they were willing to pay the chaplain’s salary themselves.

The want of a Chaplain does, I humbly conceive, reflect dishonor upon the Regiment, as all other Officers are allowed. The Gentlemen of the Corps are sensible of this, and did propose to support one at their private expence—But I think it would have a more graceful appearance were he appointed as others are.

George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 23 September 1756

Perhaps Washington’s officers were willing to dig into their own pockets to fund the chaplain billet, or perhaps this was just Washington’s way of driving home his point. I doubt private funding was a every seriously considered as a course of action, but saying so put pressure on the government.  The government should provide the regiment with a chaplain or face the embarrassment of having its officers do so themselves. As a modern parallel, think of the government’s reaction when soldiers said they had to buy their own body armor in Iraq.

Although Dinkwiddie was technically the lieutenant governor, he was in reality the senior colonial authority on the ground in Virginia. The official governors under whom he served were largely absentee figureheads. Dinwiddie told Washington that he simply couldn’t find anyone willing to serve as a chaplain.

A Chaplain for the Regiment I have recommended to the Commissary to get one, but he cannot prevail with any Person to accept of it, I shall again press it to him.

Dinwiddie to Washington, 30 September 1756

Washington didn’t buy it. He told Dinwiddie that he could find the person himself if the government would simply authorize the funds.

As touching a Chaplain—If the Government will grant a subsistance we can readily get a person of merit to accept of the place, without giving the Commissary any trouble on that point: as it is highly necessary we shou’d be reformed from those crimes and enormities we are so universally accused of.

Washington to Dinwiddie, 9 November 1756

On the same day, Washington went around the governor’s office and pressed the matter with the John Robinson, the speaker of the House of Burgesses.

A Chaplain for the Regiment ought to be provided; that we may at least have the show, if we are said to want the substance of Godliness!

Washington to John Robinson, 9 November 1756

In his response, Dinwiddie reminded Washington that not just anyone could serve as chaplain. The bishop of the established Church of England would have to approve. The candidate would have to document his qualifications. And, if I am reading him correctly, the governor wanted to know who, exactly, Washington had in mind. The ability to provide friends with patronage was a jealously defended perquisite of royal authority. Dinwiddie would not surrender his authority to  Washington.

The same in regard to a Chaplain, You shou’d know that it’s necessary his Qualificat. & the Bishop’s Letter of Licence shou’d be produc’d to the Commissary, & Self, but this Person is also nameless.

Dinwiddie to Washington, 16 November 1756

Washington politely replied to Dinwiddie’s complaint, telling the governor that he did not intend to cause offense, to step on the governor’s toes or to usurp the governor’s prerogatives. He simply wanted the governor to know the suitable candidates were available; he wasn’t proposing any one candidate in particular.

When I spoke of a Chaplain, it was in answer to yours: I had no person in view, tho’ many have offered and only said, if the country would provide a Subsistance, we cou’d procure a Chaplain: without thinking there was offence in the expression.

Washington to Dinwiddie, 24 November 1756

The issue persisted into 1757. In a June letter, Washington pressed the point again with Dinwiddie.

It is a hardship upon the Regiment, I think, to be denied a Chaplain.

Washington to Dinwiddie, 29 April, 1757

And once more in June. This time, Washington made it clear that he would not accept just anyone the governor might appoint as a matter of political patronage. The chaplain needed to be the right kind of person for the job.

We shou’d also be glad if our Chaplain was appointed, and that a Gentleman of sober, serious and religious deportment were chosen for this important Trust! Otherwise, we shou’d be better without.

Washington to Dinwiddie, 12 June 1757

Again, Dinwiddie dragged his feet. If Washington said having no chaplain was better than having a bad chaplain, so be it!

As yet, has no Clergiman offer’d to be Chaplain, if not one of good Character, better have none, and more so as the Regimt is to be devided.

Dinwiddle to Washington, 24 June 1757

If Washington’s appeals to Dinwiddie were falling on deaf ears, his appeal to the House of Burgesses eventually paid off. In April 1758, Washington wrote John Blair, a lawyer serving in the House of Burgesses. It appears the assembly not only authorized the payment of a chaplain’s salary, it also directed Blair to appoint an appropriate candidate.

The last Assembly in their Supply Bill, provided for a Chaplain to our Regiment; for whom I had often very unsuccessfully applied to Governor Dinwiddie. I now flatter myself, that your Honor will be pleased to appoint a sober, serious man for this Duty. Common decency, Sir, in a camp calls for the services of a Divine; and which ought not to be dispensed with, altho’ the world should be so uncharitable as to think us void of Religion, & incapable of good Instructions.

Washington to John Blair, 17 April, 1758

In July 1758, Washington was able to report to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Bouquet, Deputy Commander of the British forces under Brigadier General John Forbes, that the Virginia Regiment now had a chaplain on staff.

The staff of the regiment was composed of a chaplain, an adjutant, a quartermaster, and a surgeon. There were 496 rank and file present in the six companies, of whom 25 were sick.

Washington to Henry Bouquet, 3 July 1758

In the summer of 1758, the troops under Forbes, including the regiment commanded by Colonel Washington, marched on Fort Duquesne, a French stronghold at the present site of the city of Pittsburgh.

The French abandoned the fort, but the Virginia legislature was not pleased that its regiment was now campaigning so far from home. Virginia itself was under threat. Unless the regiment returned to Virginia, the House intended to cut off funding for the regiment, specifically for key staff members including the recently acquired chaplain.

The 1st Virga Regimt had like to have been broke by a Vote of the House, but the Old & judicious, carried it against the Young Members by a majority of five—however they have so far prevail’d, that unless the Regimt return into this Colony by the 1st of Decr next & guard our Frontiers, they are to be no longer in the pay of this Colony. There is to be no Lieut. Colo. Quarter Master, Adjutant nor Chaplain,

William Ramsay to Washington, 17 October 1758

Washington did return to Virginia by December of 1758 and thereupon resigned his commission.

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

2 thoughts on “Colonel Washington Needs a Chaplain”

  1. Hey Mitch,

    We may have talked about this already, so excuse the redundancy:

    CH (COL) Parker Thompson’s (Ret), legendary chaplain historian and three-time combat vet, daughter Mary V. Thompson, wrote a book on Washington’s religious life called “In the Hands of a Good Providence.” She is still at the Mt Vernon library as one of the senior researchers. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.



    J. Maddox Woodbery Chaplain (Colonel) U.S. Army



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