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.

Occasionally, on his own initiative, Washington asked the chaplains to prepare speeches or to conduct special worship services in honor of American achievements.

When he learned of the British surrender at Saratoga, Washington ordered a celebration, complete with a short speech by the chaplain:

The General has his happiness completed relative to the successes of our northern Army. On the 14th instant, General Burgoyne, and his whole Army, surrendered themselves prisoners of war—Let every face brighten, and every heart expand with grateful Joy and praise to the supreme disposer of all events, who has granted us this signal success—The Chaplains of the army are to prepare short discourses, suited to the joyful occasion to deliver to their several corps and brigades at 5 O’clock this afternoon—immediately after which, Thirteen pieces of cannon are to be discharged at the park of artillery, to be followed by a feu-de-joy with blank cartridges, or powder, by every brigade and corps of the army.

General Orders, 18 October 1777

Getting chaplains to keep their remarks short has perhaps always been a challenge.

When, after Saratoga, France recognized the independence of the United States, Washington ordered his chaplains to read the news to their troops, and then deliver a prayer and another speech.

It having pleased the Almighty ruler of the Universe propitiously to defend the Cause of the United American-States and finally by raising us up a powerful Friend among the Princes of the Earth to establish our liberty and Independence upon lasting foundations, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine Goodness & celebrating the important Event which we owe to his benign Interposition.  The several Brigades are to be assembled for this Purpose at nine o Clock tomorrow morning when their Chaplains will communicate the Intelligence contain’d in the Postscript to the Pennsylvania Gazette of the 2nd instant and offer up a thanksgiving and deliver a discourse suitable to the Occasion.

General Orders 5 May 1778

When the war ended, Washington once again asked his chaplains to offer a prayer thanking God for peace.

The Commander in Chief orders the Cessation of Hostilities between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain to be publickly proclaimed tomorrow at 12 o’clock at the New building, and that the Proclamation which will be communicated herewith, be read tomorrow evening at the head of every regiment & corps of the army—After which the Chaplains with the several Brigades will render thanks to almighty God for all his mercies, particularly for his over ruling the wrath of man to his own glory, and causing the rage of war to cease amongst the nations.

General Orders, 18 April 1783

Even more frequently, Washington directed chaplains to participate in thanksgiving observances enacted by Congress, to offer prayers of gratitude, confession and supplication, and to make speeches to their brigades.

First in late 1777, the general instructed his chaplains to prepare special worship services in observance of the congressional declaration. He issued a “warning order” to his chaplains in November.

On the 25th of November instant, the Honorable Continental Congress passed the following resolve—vizt. “Resolved …. Forasmuch as it is the indispensible duty of all men, to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligations to him for benefits received, and to implore such further blessings as they stand in need of: and it having pleased him, in his abundant mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also, to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence of our unalienable rights and liberties”—It is therefore recommended by Congress, that Thursday, the 18th day of December next be set apart for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise, that at one time, and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that, together with their sincere acknowledgements and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their sins; and supplications for such further blessings as they stand in need of—The Chaplains will properly notice this recommendation, that the day of thanksgiving may be duly observed in the army, agreeably to the intentions of Congress.

General Orders, 30 November 1777

In December, he ordered his units – and his chaplains – to execute the event.

Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutely to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us—The General directs that the army remain in it’s present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades—And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensibly necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.

General Orders, 17 December 1777

Chaplain Israel Evans sent Washington a copy of the speech (or sermon) he delivered on 18 December, and Washington replied favorably.

Revd Sir : Your favor of the 17th Ulto inclosing the discourse which you delivered on the 18th of December—the day set apart for a general thanksgiving—to Genl Poors Brigade, never came to my hands till yesterday. I have read this performance with equal attention & pleasure, and at the sametime that I admire, & feel the force of the reasoning which you have displayed through the whole, it is more especially incumbent upon me to thank you for the honorable, but partial mention you have made of my character; & to assure you, that it will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavours to inculcate a due sense of the dependance we ought to place in that allwise & powerful Being on whom alone our success depends; and moreover, to assure you, that with respect & regard I am Revd Sir, Yr Most Obedt Sert

Washington to Chaplain Israel Evans, 13 March 1778

(Evans was also the chaplain who recommended building the first chapel building at the New Windsor encampment.)

At the next observance, in April 1778, Washington asked his chaplains “to prepare discourses suitable to the Occasion.”

The Honorable Congress having thought proper to recommend to The United-States of America to set apart Wednesday the 22nd instant to be observed as a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, that at one time and with one voice the righteous dispensations of Providence may be acknowledged & His Goodness and Mercy towards us and our Arms supplicated and implored—The General directs that this day also shall be religiously observed in the Army, that no work be done thereon & that the Chaplains prepare discourses suitable to the Occasion.

General Orders, 12 April 1778

More observances followed in December 1778, May 1779, April 1780, May 1781, April 1782 and November 1782. On each occasion, Washington continued to ask his chaplains for speeches.

The Honorable The Congress having been pleased by their Proclamation of the 21st of November last to appoint Wednesday the 30th instant as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise for the great and numerous Providential Mercies experienced by the People of These States in the course of the present War, the same is to be religiously observed throughout the Army in the manner therein directed, and the different Chaplains will prepare discourses suited to the Occasion.

General Orders, 22 December 1778

The Honorable the Congress having recommended it to the United States to set apart thursday the 6th of May next to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to acknowledge the gracious interpositions of Providence; to deprecate deserved punishment for our Sins & Ingratitude, to unitedly implore the Protection of Heaven; Success to our Arms and the Arms of our Ally2—The Commander in Chief enjoins a religious observance of said day and directs the Chaplains to prepare discourses proper for the occasion; strictly forbiding all recreations and unnecessary labor.

General Orders, 12 April 1779

The Honorable the Congress having been pleased by their proclamation of the 11th of last month to appoint wednesday the 22nd instant to be set apart and observed as a day of Fasting Humiliation and Prayer for certain special purposes therein mentioned, and recommended that there should be no labor or recreations on that day; The same is to be observed accordingly thro’out the Army and the different Chaplains will prepare discourses suited to the several objects enjoined by the said Proclamation.

General Orders, 6 April 1780

Congress having been pleased to set apart and appoint Thursday the 3d of May next for fasting humiliation and prayer the General enjoins a strict obedience to it in the Army and calls upon the Chaplains thereof to prepare discourses suitable to the occasion.  All duties of Fatigue are to cease on that day.

General Orders, 27 April 1781

The United States in Congress assembled having been pleased by their Proclamation dated the 19th March last to appoint Thursday next the 25th Instant to be set apart as a day of Fasting humiliation and Prayr for certain special purposes therein mentioned: the same is to be Observed accordingly throughout the Army, and the different Chaplains will prepare Discourses Suited to the Several Objects injoin’d by the said Proclamation.

General Orders, 22 April 1782

Congress having been pleased to set a part Thursday the 28th instant as a day of Solemn thanksgiving to god for all his Mercies, The General desires it may be most religiously observed by the army; and that the Chaplains will prepare discourses suitable to the occasion.

General Orders, 14 November 1782

Chaplains still participate in many kinds of ceremonies, although they are much more likely to be asked for a short prayer than a long speech.

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