The Sword of the Lord and Gideon

The idea of Christian dogma and ministers encouraging the defeat of other Christians in mortal combat seems ethically converse to the modern American mindset. However, ministers on both sides of the American Revolution were quite proficient at using the pulpit to promote a message, both belligerent and propagandist in content. Patriot ministers carried their rebellious convictions into every corner and facet of the conflict via the pulpit and by so doing may have changed the outcome of battles and, ultimately, world history. Within revolutionary era sermons, particularly those preached to the fighting men of the Continental Army and militia, there is evidence of a profound psychological manipulation through theological rhetoric, which seems to have driven soldiers to perform in extraordinary manner, pulling victories from British forces when those victories should have been tactically inconceivable.

The efforts of the clergy in preparing Patriots for victory in battle actually began before the first shot of the revolution was fired. The subliminal psychology of the revolutionary era sermons was nothing short of brilliant. They embedded a belief that the revolution was providence and, with God on the side of the colonies, regardless of lack of military strength, they were undefeatable.[1] Reverend David Jones, while at Fort Ticonderoga in October 1776, even attributed the wind coming from the north and preventing British ships from entering Crown Point as evidence that God was backing the Americans.[2] J.T. Headley purported that Americans felt God supported independence by describing a sermon preached to a group of potential minutemen by a Dr. West. “They had been taught from the pulpit that it was the cause of God, and they took it up in the full belief they had His blessing and His promise.”[3]

An extension of the idea of American independence as providence was that the conflict was a catalyst to the end of days. Varying claims abounded for the realization of Revelations, from Reverend Samuel Sherwood’s outright indictment that it was the “British Empire” leading to the “fulfillment of such prophecies”[4] to the subtle inclusion of “the kingdoms of the world, are become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ. Hasten this blessed, this long wished for period,” preached by Abraham Keteltas.[5] The ideas of having God on their side and being the cornerstone of the fulfillment of Revelations bolstered the Patriot will to fight.

The psychological impact of patriotic sermons on the minds of believers in the late 1700s was probably spellbinding if one considers key examples of theological influence in American history. During the Great Awakenings, sermons motivated mass animation, such as uncontrollable crying, fainting, jerking, speaking in tongues, and a continuum of religious enthusiasms, or psychosomatic responses.[6] Such examples show how clerical control over a seventeenth century religious populous could also have easily been achieved for the purpose of war making.

To reconcile the killing, and therefore defeat, of the enemy with moral and religious doctrine required that soldiers were readied to believe that they were not killing human beings; what is mere extenuating circumstances existed whereby God granted permission to kill.[7] Psychology calls the process of circumventing moral and religious laws on killing the process of dehumanization. It is a trick of the mind employed to a great extent in all recorded wars. The pre-revolutionary and revolutionary decades in America were no different. The pulpit was frequently used as a platform for demonization and dehumanization of the enemy, with such common analogies attributed to Great Britain and her soldiery as Satan, beasts, savages, haughty tyrants, and the whore of Babylon.[8]

Few ministers of the time demonized the British with more authority than Jacob Cushing. Cushing likened the enemy to “mystical Babylon” made up of “cowards and robbers” who had retreated in battle to dens as beasts do. He went on to expound that “they began the war with a mean, dastardly spirit, so they have prosecuted it, in all their measures, with a rigour [sic] and barbarity, exceeding the savages of the wilderness.”[9] In a stirring sermon, Keteltas poured onto his audience, which included soldiers, vivid descriptions of the animalistic atrocities committed by the “cruel, bloody, and vindictive” British.[10] The British had purposely starved prisoners, women and children, and they had ravished “wives and daughters.” While the acts described were meant to anger patriots as men, it was the barbarous and blasphemous degradations of American churches for which they should punish the enemies of God. The British and their hirelings wantonly burned the houses of worship. Those left standing were used for stables, places to store loot, prisons, armories, places where helpless victims were brought and molested, and theaters where lewd plays were performed. Keteltas laid out all the reasons why destroying such an enemy, the British Satan, was not only sinless but the “cause of God.” Crusaders killed ungodly creatures, “and depended entirely upon God for the success of their military enterprizes” while their hands remained clean. [11]

In the early months of the revolution Reverend David Jones spoke to a congregation, which included Colonel Dewees’ regiment, on the matter of sinless killing. Jones incorporated all of the psychological techniques required to spark martial flame and give permission, based on Scripture, to kill their brothers and recruit men to service under the banner of holy war. He began by comparing America to the Old Testament Israelites. He reminded them that the Israelites were a “formidable and invincible” foe and that tens of thousands fell before their small numbers in battle. Jones went on to provide examples as to why a defensive war was deemed just in the eyes of God. Jones used Abraham, David, and Moses as examples of men loved by God who engaged in frequent battles and whose hands, while stained with blood, were free of sin. Then Jones proceeded to assure his listeners they had permission from God to do battle and they should do as the Israelites had done. “Seeing therefore that it is sinless, it is meant that we should tread in the footsteps of this flock, which is gone before us.” Jones reminded his listeners that Britain employed “barbarous savages” to do their fighting for them – not against “armed men” but against women and children. He concluded by insisting that he had “considered every point” in his sermon and that, without reservation, “a defensive war [was] sinless.” If he had not convinced them, he proclaimed, “these arguments have removed all difficulties from my own breast.”[12]

Emory Elliott argues in his article “The Dove and Serpent: The Clergy in the American Revolution” that the inciting language of the pulpit diminished to an almost imperceptible level after the war began.[13] He postulates that this decline occurred because of the leeriness of the increasing bonds between church and state or that the military no longer needed the influence of the clergy to succeed. There is, in fact, no indication that clerical influence decreased. The inflammatory sermons may have, as Elliott argues, declined from the traditional pulpit but they continued with as much or more passion in another capacity. The influence of the sermon now coupled itself with the presence on the battlefield of patriot clergymen.

Once American soldiers, fighting under God’s banner,[14] understood they were free to kill the enemy, they had to be steered from the pew to the battlefield. On the eve of the revolution, Reverend John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg issued a sermon to his German-American congregation. He concluded that in the cycle of life there were times for peace and times to fight. It was time for the latter, he declared. He then, according to claims, dramatically removed his clerical robe and revealed his uniform. Under the thump of drums he marched toward the door, beckoning by his example other patriots to follow.[15] Whether Muhlenberg was truly this flamboyant is arguable, however, there is no doubt he began the war as a colonel and ended it as a general. On the day of the sermon he raised a contingent of 300 enlistees who became the 8th Virginia Regiment.[16] The image of the pastor as military recruiter now appeared across the colonies and filled the ranks of the Continental Army. Reverend Oliver Hart accompanied Reverend William Tennent and William Henry Drayton into the backcountry, or “frontier” to recruit the inhabitants to the patriot cause. [17]  Hart made the expedition twice and was later forced to leave South Carolina because of his affiliation with the rebellious colonies. Hart recorded only a snippet of the journeys but Tennent penned at least two letters in which he described his part in the recruiting. Tennent stated he had formed one company and was forming a second of mounted rangers. Tennent went on to detail how he had spoken for two hours to a congregation which presented divided opinions on the revolution. He concluded that his preaching had good effect.[18] In Culpeper County, Virginia Pastor [Elder] McClanahan raised a company of Baptist recruits and then served as their commanding officer. Reverend Samuel Eaton gave permission for a recruiter to make his case to Eaton’s congregation after the Sunday morning sermon. The officer received no takers. After Eaton had thought on the matter, he called the congregation together outside the meetinghouse. He began with a prayer and then ended by bellowing out Jeremiah 48:10. “Cursed be he that keepeth [sic] back his sword from blood!” Following a patriotic sermon, the text lost to time, Eaton counted to his credit forty volunteers for service.[19] The clergy had demonstrated men shied from military recruiters but were willing to follow their pastors into the ranks.

As Muhlenberg understood, men did not enter battle without leadership; as he had shown, it required strong men in front. Leadership on the battlefield is best achieved through example and through motivational techniques that required the “great” leaders to have “real knowledge of the souls of their soldiers,” according to Captain Von Schell.[20] The examinations of successes on the American Revolutionary War battlefield rarely address examples set by the clergy. Much like the concept of motivation, divine influence in battle, by its’ nature is absent of tangible evidence, making it almost impossible to analyze. It can, however, be theorized if men directed by mere mortal’s words can be persuaded to set aside their most terrifying fears and perform bravely, than instructions by God through His earthly ministers to the soldier believer compound such drive. The clergy were already, by their very nature accustomed to leading men by example; from the pulpit to the skirmish line was no great leap. Ministers lived their lives by example.  They were constantly being scrutinized for any flaw in their character. Their congregation watched them, as did their superiors, and their clandestine enemies who sometimes waited in glee for their stumbling. The church pastors lived their life with courage and commitment, knowing that should they fail, that failure would cost; not merely earthly lives, but eternal souls. Their presence on the battlefield afforded the opportunity to set an example not only of physical courage but one of spiritual faith as well. It was this presence and example that caused other men to perform as men of God did.

Before General Washington promoted the idea of a chaplain’s corps most of the patriot ministers simply picked up their muskets and joined the ranks as common soldiers; preaching and teaching as they fought. One of the more courageous examples of the fighting parson, though there were hundreds, was Reverend John Simpson. His daughter wrote after the war that her father was well known and hated by the Tories. He fought as a soldier in many battles, and it was believed that his sermons incited the battles and patriot victories at Old Field and Mobley’s. Enough evidence stood against him that the British sought him out.  Not finding him, they burnt his church and looted and burnt his home, the destruction of which became the principal motivation for his company’s victory at a battle known as Huck’s Defeat. The significance of this action would set off a series of events which led to the decisive engagement at King’s Mountain. Simpson’s example was that of all ministers within the ranks who “encouraged and stimulated” their fellow soldiers “by [their] counsel no less than [their] services.”[21]

How valuable to the overall victory the clergy were, both in and out of the chaplains’ corps, cannot be determined. However, what the British thought of clerical influence is well documented. Headley noted that during former conflicts clergy were treated with respect and were not abused. The American clergy, however, were not afforded the same code of conduct. Headley further stated, “There was a class of clergymen and chaplains in the Revolution, whom the British, when they once laid hands on them, treated with the most barbarous severity. Dreading them for the influence they wielded, and hating them for the obstinacy, courage and enthusiasm they infused into the rebels, they violated all the usages of war among civilized nations, in order to inflict punishment upon them.” [22]

The influence Headley spoke of would never be more evident than in October of 1780. In the last days of September 1780, a ragtag collection of men gathered at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River.[23] They were, for the most part, frontiersmen, Indian fighters, or at best militia units of rudimentary training. Their units were nothing more than a few men from some certain county, township, or mountain hollow that knew one another and had elected a captain. The situation was dire at this point in the war; the Patriot forces had lost every major battle from Savannah in 1778 to Charleston, Camden, and the massacre at Waxhaws in 1780. The British strategy involved the systematic conquest of the Southern Colonies, one by one, with their final goal to sever American supply lines and ultimately take Virginia. Once the South was secured, the British could strike at the New England colonies on two fronts, forcing Washington to a decisive battle without the freedom of escape, evasion, and maneuver he had perfected into tactical art.

The British, now facing only American militia, thought little of them, with good reason. The militia had developed a habit of fleeing in the face of organized, experienced, and well-disciplined British soldiers and their so called hirelings. It was the odd victory, however by militia units such as Huck’s Defeat, that caused the British to rethink them as more than an insignificant nuisance. Those minor defeats caused the British to deviate from the larger strategy and start chasing American units around the southern countryside, spoiling for a conventional fight, which they had little doubt they could win. The deviation brought the patriots to a face-off with Major Patrick Ferguson, one of the finest military tacticians of the day. He had joined the military at age 15 and had served in combat commands almost his entire career. He was known as one of the best, if not the best, sharpshooter in the British army and was renowned for inventing the first breech loading musket for military use. Ferguson warned the rebels in the Carolinas, and the South in general, that they should cease their rebellion or he would hang their leaders and “lay their country waste with fire and sword.”[24] That was enough to spur the frontier manhood to action. Ferguson soon found he was the one being pursued. He made a stand with approximately 1100 personally trained Tories on King’s Mountain, in present day South Carolina. Ferguson prepared to defend the mountain and felt confident in his ability to hold it, allegedly stating, “God Almighty could not drive him from it.”[25]

The Overmountain Men received a prayer and sermon on the eve of battle, preached by Reverend Samuel Doak. Doak began: “my countrymen” and then assured them that there would be danger and hardship but that God would attend them. He then asked them, would they “tarry now until the other enemy carries fire and sword to your very door?” He prayed that God would give them victory and save them from the “cruel hand of the savage, and of [the] tyrant.” He ended with:

Oh, God of Battle, arise in Thy might. Avenge the slaughter of Thy people. Confound those who plot for our destruction. Crown this mighty effort with victory, and smite those who exalt themselves against liberty and justice and truth. Help us as good soldiers to wield the Sword of the Lord and Gideon![26]


The listeners, according to accounts, repeated the last verse with the same fire as Doak had and claimed it as their battle-cry.

The odds were, by all laws of tactics, stacked horribly against the rebels. Ferguson had prepared King’s Mountain in a 360-degree defensive perimeter. His numbers were estimated as slightly larger than those of the Patriot forces. According to tested strategy, breaching a defense requires three times the number of attackers in order to succeed. Further, the Tories had dug in, felled trees, and prepared breastworks. Ferguson’s men were better organized, disciplined, and trained. Patriot weapons could not accept a bayonet. Ferguson’s muskets could, and the Tories were well-trained in the use of the bayonet. The Tories could reload quicker; the Patriots were armed almost exclusively with a slower loading rifled gun, which typically had to be reloaded from a standing position. The terrain of King’s Mountain remains today almost as it was in 1780, extremely rugged, rocky, steep, covered with underbrush, and slight cliffs. In what seemed to further increase the odds of failure, the Patriots divided their forces into three columns, deminishing their ability to make a decisive spearhead attack on a single exploitable point; they fought, in fact, as individuals. The battle lasted less than an hour. As if God had chosen to prove him wrong, Ferguson’s entire command was either killed or captured and the mountain taken with minimal loss on the American side. Military historians mark the battle as the turning point of the revolution and certainly the battle that saved the American south. Most scholars agree that the Patriots should not have won and certainly not without deplorable cost. When all other facts were deducted, it came down once more to the possibility of divine presence – which they had been promised.

Commanders understand the intrinsic effect of latent, immeasurable factors, such as morale, motivation, courage, and faith on the battlefield. In the early days, General Washington petitioned for a corps of chaplains, understanding how their presence at a man’s side during battle increased those intangible assets and improved the chances of victory. Washington chose to be baptized to show his own faith at Valley Forge. The man who performed the rite was Reverend John Gano, the fighting chaplain. Gano was one of those influential clergymen who, if he knew, never attempted to explain why the unit he attended at White Plains held the line when all others fled. But he understood he had to be there, at that moment: “I, somehow, got in the front of the regiment; yet I durst not quit my place, for fear of damping the spirits of the soldiers, or of bringing on me an imputation of cowardice. Rather than do either, I chose to risk my fate.”[27]

The clergy brought something unexplainable to the battlefield. Their presence steeled men and caused them to perform more bravely than they would have without them. How well the clergy affected the battlefield can only be surmised by the many examples whereby their words and presence spurred men to accomplish what seemed impossible. Their methods of war-time instruction from the pulpit and trenches bore close resemblance to latter day propaganda and psychological warfare campaigns and bore out similar positive results, which are understandable and recordable events.

     [1] Holly A. Mayer, “Forging the Armor of Virtue,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania 2 (May 2002), 14.

     [2] David Jones, “An Address to General St. Clair’s Brigade, at Ticonderoga, when the enemy was hourly expected, October 20, 1776,” in America Discovered by the Welsh in 1170 A.D., by Benjamin Franklin Bowen (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Company, 1876), 181; “if our God be for us – and who can doubt this who observes the point in which the win now blows.”

     [3] J.T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the American Revolution (New York: Charles Scribner, 1824), 20.

     [4] Samuel Sherwood, The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness: An Address on the Times (New York: S. Loudon, 1776).

     [5] Abraham Keteltes, “God Arising and Pleading His People’s Cause; or The American War in Favor of Liberty, Against the Measures and Arms of Great Britain, Shewn to Be the Cause of God (1777),” in The Kingdom, the Power, & the Glory: The Millennial Impulse in Early American Literature by Reiner Smolinski ( Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1998), 426.

     [6] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, (Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut, 1989), 10, 35, 52, 130, 154.

     [7] Herbert C. Kelman, Violence Without Moral Restraint: Reflections on the Dehumanization of Victims and Victimizers.” Journal of Social Issues, 29, no. 4 (1973), 25, 49-52.

     [8] Mark A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution, (Washington: Christian University Press, 1977), 51. Noll points out that Samuel West and Samuel Sherwood both likened Britain to the beast in the book of Revelation 13.

     [9] Jacob Cushing, Divine judgments upon tyrants: and compassion to the oppressed. A sermon, preached at Lexington, April 20th, 1778. In commemoration of the muderous war and rapine, inhumanly perpetrated (Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale ECCO publishing, 2010), 1-32.

     [10] Keteltas, God Arising.

     [11] Ibid.

     [12] David Jones, Defensive War in a Just Cause Sinless: A Sermon, Preached on the Day of the Continental Fast, at Tredyffryn, in Chester County (Philadelphia: Henry Miller, 1775).

     [13] Emory Elliott, “The Dove and the Serpent: The Clergy in the American Revolution,” American Quarterly, 31 (Summer 1979), 192.

     [14] Noll, Christians in the American Revolution. Noll refers to Patriots as taking on the appearance of “religious crusaders.”

     [15] Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy, 123-124.

     [16] Charles H. Metzger, “Chaplains in the American Revolution,” The Catholic Historical Review, 31 (April 1945), 31.

     [17] Oliver Hart, Diary of Oliver Hart, Archives and Special Collections, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville,, 9-10.

     [18] Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy, 117-118.

     [19] Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy, 112-114.

     [20] Adolf Von Schell, Battle Leadership, (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps Association, 1982), 9.

     [21] Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The women of the American Revolution, Vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1856), 218.

     [22] Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy, 58.

     [23] They were called the Overmountain men, having come from over the mountains to muster.

     [24] Lewis Preston Summers, History of Southwest Virginia, 1746-1786, Washington County, 1777-1870 (Richmond, Virginia: J.L. Hill Printing Company, 1903), 306.

     [25] Lyman Copeland Draper, King’s Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It (Cincinnati: Peter G Thomson, 1881), 211.

     [26] Samuel Doak, “Samuel Doak’s Sermon and Prayer: At Sycamore Shoals September 1780,” in One Heroic Hour at King’s Mountain, by Pat Alderman (Johnson City, Tennessee: Overmountain Press, 1990), 21.

      [27] John Gano, Biographical Memoirs of the Late Rev. John Gano, of Frankfort (Kentucky): Formerly of the City of New York (New York: Southwick and Hardcastle, 1806), 94.