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.