Article six in the series will look at some of the notable clerics of the period of revolution. Most of these religious leaders kept their battle cries to the pulpit; however, there were a few that took up arms against the British. The next few paragraphs will discuss some of the more or less well known examples of the rebel clerics who participated in active military roles, whether as chaplains or as combat soldiers and leaders of the American Revolution.

James Caldwell American RevolutionCredit: Henry Alexander Ogden

James Caldwell (1734-1781), a New Jersey Presbyterian minister, was one of the many clergymen who served as chaplain during the Revolutionary War. According to Williams, there was no single cleric more “deserving of a prominent place in the history of the Revolution” than Caldwell (135).[1] Caldwell served as chaplain in the 3rd New Jersey from February to November 1776; afterward he served as the assistant to the deputy quartermaster general. His promotion of the ideas of independence and resistance to tyranny and his actions supporting the war effort earned him the name by which most historians refer to him: the “Fighting Parson.”[*] The Royalists had a name for Caldwell as well: the “Rebel High Priest”; however, it was not meant as a compliment (137).[1] One of the more infamous episodes of his life occurred at the battle of Springfield, New Jersey, on June 23, 1780, when his company ran out of wadding. Caldwell was said to have dashed into a nearby Presbyterian church, scooped up as many Watts hymnals as he could carry, and distributed them to the troops, shouting "put Watts into them, boys" (136).[1]

Though Caldwell was a chaplain, he was also a Colonial Army Intelligence operative. He was reported to be everywhere “collecting information for the advancement of the common cause” (Williams 135).[1] Williams states that Caldwell had a network of spies everywhere and that “the enemy could not make a move that eluded his attention” (135).[1] Williams also credits the information provided by Caldwell to the rebel army as being “of incalculable value”; however, Caldwell’s success eventually caught up with him (135).[1] England regarded him as such a danger that a significant reward had been offered for his capture (Williams 134).[1] In 1781, he was shot and killed by an American sentry, who was suspected to be in the pay of the British (Williams 137).[1] 

Caldwell was not the only cleric performing an intelligence function for the rebel cause. Samuel West, Congregational minister at Dartmouth, Massachusetts also made his contributions felt. West performed important code-breaking services for the colonial army during the war. 

Many more clerics accepted military leadership roles in the colonial army. The Rev. Isaac Avery served as a colonel of the militia and later as a naval officer (Williams 58).[1] The Reverend Charles M. Thurston served as a colonel over sixteen regiments (Williams 58).[1] The Reverend Stephen Bloomer Balch served as a colonial captain (Williams 58).[1] Benjamin Balch of Massachusetts served as a lieutenant and fought in the battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775; later that same year he served as a regimental chaplain and finally as a chaplain in the colonial navy (Williams 109).[1] The Rev. Thomas Brockway served as a chaplain from 1775-1776. In September 1776, he was sent home due to illness; however, in September 1781, after learning that the British landed at New London, he seized his gun and powder horn, mounted his horse, and hurried to the place, accompanied by his deacons and parishioners, to assist in doing battle with the enemy (Williams 132). [1]

Peter Muhlenberg "The Fighting Parson"

Peter MuhlenbergCredit: James Blanchard

One of the most famous warrior clerics of the American Revolution was Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807). Muhlenberg, also named the "Fighting Parson," served as a colonel in the Virginia militia and later as a general in the Continental Army (Williams 47).[**][1] During Muhlenberg’s farewell sermon to his congregation before his departure to join the fight, he stated his position supporting the war for independence. After concluding his argument insisting that England had encroached on the political and religious rights of the colonists and closing his sermon, he stated that the Bible tells us that:

There was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but these times had passed away, that there was a time to fight and that time was now come. (Williams 56) 

As soon as the service was over, Muhlenburg removed his clerical robes, revealing the uniform of a Virginia colonial colonel (Williams 56).[1] He signaled a drummer standing at the rear of the church to beat his drum for a call to arms. As Williams relates the story,

His audience was so stirred by his fervent and patriotic appeal that 300 men of the parish rallied to the call and enrolled under his command. (56)[1]

Those clerics that chose to remain home also provided support to the war effort by promoting the justification for the war in terms of religious-political arguments. For example, the most important political parson of the rebellion was arguably John Witherspoon. He represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782, in which capacity he signed the Declaration of Independence and served on more than one hundred committees. Many of these local community clerics made it their role to encourage their congregations to support the war’s aims, support colonial taxes, and work with the local military to refill their ranks with new recruits.

Clerical Recruiters

Clerics became important allies for the colonial recruiters, using whatever motivation was handy to energize the congregation to action. Just as Muhlenberg inspired members of his congregation to take up arms through religious and political arguments, many other ministers exercised their powers of influence to raise armies against the British. Presbyterian clerics used the animosity that still existed towards England by the large number of the Irish immigrants in their congregations to help fill the militia ranks. Williams notes that many of these were recent Irish immigrants who retained their resentment towards England for the restrictions enacted in Ireland, “urged by the Anglican bench of bishops,” which resulted in the restriction of Irish ministers from “performing their clerical functions” (43).[1] Williams lists as some of his noteworthy recruiting clerics Joseph Willard, David Avery and Phillips Payson. Payson was particularly admired, as reported by Williams, for not only recruiting his parishioners, but also leading them into battle at Lexington in 1775 (57).[1]

[*] Peter Muhlenberg was also known by this title during the war.  He will be discussed later in this study.

[**] As mentioned earlier, he was one of two called by this name by historians, and he fit the name more so than others did.


The role of the clergy during the Revolution was much like that prior to the first shots: they provided reason to the politics of war through religious interpretation and led and inspired their followers. Williams describes chaplains as having become, “in a manner of speaking, all things to all men” (85).[1] They served as spiritual leaders, military recruiters, surgeons or other medical roles, combatant enlisted men, and officers. Colonial clerics became so energized by their own convictions that some found it necessary to take action as willing warfare participants. For those that chose to serve as chaplains of the revolution, these men held an uncommon influence, which Williams describes as follows:

Serving without rank, they gained a place in the confidence of the officers and enlisted men which no commission could have conferred or maintained. (94)[1]

The colonial military and the Colonial Congress recognized the value and importance of the clergy to the war effort, especially in the role of filling militia ranks and keeping the soldiers inspired to fight by convincing them that God was on their side. England, on the other hand, did not fully appreciate the influence and effectiveness religious leaders could have in the waging of war.

Many of the religious leaders on both sides of the argument were influential on the political front as well as the fighting front. Those that chose to fight from the home front kept their congregations informed of the political situations and the rationale for the arguments. By the close of the war, the religious leadership had become so important to the social and political structure that, during the establishment of the new constitutions, religious leaders were called upon to provide their own brand of wisdom and knowledge (Williams 53).[1] As was the case in 1779-1780, thirteen clergymen of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention “contributed to the temper, tradition, and political structure of American life” (Williams 53).[1] Williams proposes that

No clerical group before, or since, had more opportunities for influencing public opinion or the conduct of the common life of the colonies. (53)[1]

Next:  Religious Leaders, the American Revolution and Civil War, Part 7 of 9: Brother Against Brother, Church Against Church