Monday, July 31, 2017

How Religious were Eighteenth-Century Soldiers?


A group of men from the 7th, 8th, and 17th Regiments of the British Army

Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to look at a question very near and dear to my heart. At a reenactment last weekend, sitting around the camp fire, I heard a reenactor loudly proclaim that he would not go to church parade, (a military formation/church service held on Sunday mornings) regardless of what the practice was in the eighteenth century. This post does not intend to get into modern religious debates: indeed, nor am I trying to force anyone to do anything against their conscience. However, with that statement rolling around in my head, I decided to give a cursory glance at the sources, with the following question in mind: How religious was the average soldier of European armies in the eighteenth century?

Although I cannot hope to answer this question in the statistical detail of my "average" soldier posts, I still thought that it might be worth a crack, as there is certainly some information regarding this topic available.  In answering the question, I am indebted, as usual, to the fine work of Christopher Duffy, as well as the writings of Michael Snape, Charles Royster, Caroline Cox, and Richard Gawthrop. Once again, I am truly standing on the shoulders of giants.

The only anecdotes of military-religious fatalism even approaching those of the Swedish and Russian armies, come oddly enough, from an army supposed by many in North America to be irreligious: the British Army. The rise of Methodism, described by Michael Snape in The Redcoat and Religion, created a swell of religious feeling in the British army during the War of Austrian Succession. The French military of the eighteenth century did not have an official chaplaincy, as a result of the Louis XIV's unwillingness to submit to papal authority. Rather, regimental commanders appointed their own chaplains, and were responsible for their pay. By contrast, Phillip V of Spain appointed a vicariate general of armies, who supervised the chaplaincy in 1705. Jean-Paul Bertaud asserts that in both cases, "Chaplains were not able to halt the de-Christianization of the armies."[15]


Would period soldiers have engaged in such debauchery?
With the caveat that religiosity and belief varied greatly from army to army, we can safely say that European and North American armies of the eighteenth century were incredibly religious, much more religious than society today. The remainder of the post will compare religious views across different armies, and attempt to "take the pulse," of religion in these armies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, soldiers in the earlier part of this era display fanatic levels of religious devotion, so we will start there.



A 19th Century depiction of Swedish Karoliner at prayer, by Gustaf Cederstrom

The Armies of the Great Northern War: Sweden and Russia

Both Swedish and Russian soldiers were fiercely religious in the early eighteenth century and directly applied their religious beliefs to their job as soldiers. A writer accompanying the Swedish army in Livonia during the Great Northern War noted that at the outset of an engagement, the Swedish commander:
“Count Lewenhaupt then addressing himself to the Lord of hosts and victories, ordered the prayers usual upon the like occasions; the cavalry alighting, and the whole two lines kneeling upon the field. The prayer ended with a verse taken from a hymn, which was echo'd by the whole army, and then the signal was given: with the help of God, and in the name of Jesus.”[1] 
Such sentiments were still clearly being expressed by men such as Leopold von Anhalt Dessau thirty years later. The religiosity of Swedish army did not apply only to the high command. If you peruse the enormous collection of Great Northern War era Swedish soldiers' writings published in 1913, letters such as the following are common:
“It was a great sorrow to behold the poor men, who were frozen by means of the slow march. Indeed, many a cavalrymen and dragoon sat frozen to death still on their horses. The day after, which was the 24th of December, the companies were surveyed, and each had 25 or 26 men found frozen, and regrettably, this forced the amputation of hands, legs and feet. There was more sorrow and sadness than one could believe. ...Blessed be the Lord my God, who has brought me warmly through so many dangers. Blessed be my God, in both good and bad times, in all times. Indeed, Eternal glory , thanks, and praise to my God, full of grace, goodness and mercy. To me, the proof is now evident that the day of my death is swift approaching. So, I ask you, my God, with a humble heart, full of grace, send your peace and blessing to me, remain with me, and allow me to abide with you forever. Oh my Lord God, hear and grant me this, for the sake of Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen, Amen.”[2]
Such displays of military-religious fatalism were common in the Swedish army, but matched by the Russian army of the same era. From the writing of European observers, and the few diaries of the lower rank men who could write, we can see that military-religious myths arose in Russia, such as the belief that a man killed in battle would be brought to life again three days later in his native village.[3]

An Orthodox Priest blesses Russian soldiers in the Napoleonic Era


The Russian military planners often disregarded the dietary requirements of Eastern Orthodox soldiers, leading one western military observer to note that there were, “religious fanatics who preferred to die rather than take a meat broth.”[4] Peter I’s response was to make the religious soldiers eat by threat of force, whereas other generals obtained permission from the Holy Synod for their soldiers to abstain from the dietary requirements. This would seem to indicate that the religious nature of Russian military life came from inside the army, and was not forced on it by the state in hopes of creating a fearless body of soldiers.

These ideas remained in place in the Russian army for much of the century. Charles Immanuel Warnery, a Prussian cavalry officer, described the battle of Kunersdorf, where the Russian Corps of Observation was caught in a heavy artillery crossfire: “This respectable Corps, did not defend themselves, but instead lay on the ground, and allowed themselves to be massacred by thrusts of the bayonet, in the honor of St. Nicholas. “[5] In both the Swedish and Russian armies, then, observers noted an acceptance of the will of God, which applied to military affairs.



This British soldier, painted by Morier in the 1740s, was likely not a Methodist

Religion in Anglophone Armies: British and American Piety

British soldiers such as John Haime converted to the Methodism of John Wesley, and recorded intense bouts of religious emotion on the battlefield. At the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, Haime recalled:


"The spring following, we took the field again : and on Mayllth,.l745, we had a full trial of our faith at Fontenoy. Some days before, one of our brethren, standing at his tent-door, broke out into raptures of joy, knowing his departure was at hand ; and, when he went into the field of battle, declared, 'I am going to rest in the bosom of Jesus.' Indeed, this day God was pleased to prove our little flock, and to show them His mighty power. They showed such courage and boldness in the fight as made the officers, as well as soldiers, amazed. When wounded, some cried out,  'I am going to my Beloved.[Christ]' Others, 'Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!' And many that were not wounded earnestly desired  'to be dissolved and to be with Christ.' When W. Clements had his arm broken by a musket-ball, they would have carried him out of the battle ; but he said,  'No ; I have an arm left to hold my sword : I will not go yet.' When a second shot broke his other arm, he said, 'I am as happy as I can be out of paradise.' John Evans, having both his legs taken off by a cannon- ball, was laid across a cannon to die : where, as long as he could speak, he was praising God with joyful lips."[6]
From the perspective of 2017, such words might seem almost haunting, and some readers may doubt the sincerity of the men who wrote them. However, far from being the outlier, these types of sentiments abound in the writings of British soldiers who had joined Methodist societies. We cannot know with certainty how much of the army joined these societies, but indicators in the letters and memoirs consistently make Methodists out to be a sizeable minority. Methodist preacher John Wesley received a letter from soldiers at the front, describing the same battle, which expressed similar sentiments:
But we were all endued with strength and courage from God, so that the fear of death was taken away from us. We left our brother Mark Bend in the field; whether he be alive or dead we cannot tell; but the last of our brothers that spoke to him, after he was wounded, found him quite resigned to the will of God. We that he has spared a little longer, desire you to return thanks to God for all his mercies to us."[7]
Methodism would remain a force within the British army until 1815 and after; during the Peninsular War, Wellington expressed fears that Methodism was again on the rise, and requested Anglican chaplains to combat this sentiment.[8]Despite this, we should not assume that ALL British soldiers held these views, in fact, some commentators observe that the British were less religious than other eighteenth-century soldiers. A German Subsidientruppen from Ansbach-Bayreuth, Johann Dölha serving alongside the British army in the era of the American Revolution, recalled,"
The common English soldier is swift, marches easily...[w]hen they go against an enemy, they are fresh, optimistic, and do not worry about their life... The English keep their clothing very clean and have only the vices of cussing, swearing, drinking, whoring, and stealing, and these more so than other people.[9]


It would also seem that the British Soldier of the era got into some trouble
When specifically describing the British navy, Dölha informed his reader,  On the other hand, the seamen are a thieving, happy, whoring, drunken lot and much inclined to swearing and cursing people. They can hardly say three words without their curses ‘God damn my soul, God damn me…’ toward us they are rather rough, impolite, and rude."[10]

The British army, then, seems to have been a contradiction, with both fervently religious and more profane elements. This should not surprise us, it is quite likely that the British were simply more expressive of this contradiction, existed in most eighteenth century armies. Another Anglophone army of the era, the Continental Army, was deeply religious, but perhaps less fatalistic than the Swedish, Russians, or Methodist Britons.


George Washington in prayer at Valley Forge, a later artist's reimagining
Charles Royster argues that religious language was one of the primary ways through which Continental Army soldiers understood the world.[11] Preachers followed the Continental Army, and frequently distributed religious literature to soldiers, who eagerly lapped up any insights from the gospel on their current situation. British army officers believed that religious thinking had led the colonies to war in the first place.[12] Especially during the early war, religion mattered a great deal to the Continental Army. Even army officers from supposedly more secular areas of North America, such as the Chesapeake region, frequently used religious injunctions in their orders.[13] Coming out of the harsh winter at Valley Forge, George Washington ordered May 6th to be a day of thanksgiving for providential protection.[14]


French Soldiers of the Seven Years' War Era, Don Troiani

Armies of the Catholic Powers: Austria, Spain, and France


The Austrian army possessed an official chaplaincy, and as a result of the work of Christopher Duffy, we know a good deal more than we otherwise might. In the mid-century, the average Austrian chaplain was 39 years old, with five years of service under his belt.[16] The Austrian chaplains "exercised a considerable moral authority over officer and man alike." [17]

Considering the Austrian Empire's  status as a polyglot religious state, we should not be surprised that many Austrian soldiers were openly Eastern Orthodox or secretly Protestant. Only a chaplaincy for Catholics existed, but the army regulations indicate that: "Religion is something you should never speak about. Rather it is something you should strive to live by. Upon pain of severe and unfailing punishment, we forbid any behaviour which may create ill-feeling between those of different faiths."[18] The Austrian army managed to keep its soldiers fighting together, despite the religious, ethnic and politic divisions holding them apart. Such an achievement is truly remarkable. 


Menzel's Reimagining of a Prussian Infantry Chaplain

The German Protestants: Prussia and the Western German States

There were deep, heartfelt religious motivations among many of the common soldiers and officers fighting in German Protestant armies in the eighteenth century. In places as diverse as modern Poland and upstate New York, soldiers in Protestant German armies could be heard singing hymns as they marched into battle.[19] Most of these armies also contained numerous Feld-Predigers, or chaplains, who ministered to the men, and occasionally made rousing speeches on the day of battle.

Hessian soldiers such as Dölha complained about the lack of religious feeling in British soldiers and even deployed religious complaints about slavery in North America. August von Dinklage, a Lt. Colonel of a Hessian grenadier battalion,  he thought that the whites used religion to mistreat African slaves. Dinklage believed that the animal-like treatment of the blacks was, "to the shame of so-called Christians." He went on to say, "it is a sad sight when one views these people, who in their capacities and the quality of their intelligence yield nothing to the whites, sold like cattle in the market to the highest bidder."[20] The Hessians brought their chaplains with them to North America, and many of those chaplains recorded their thoughts on the young United States. Unlike many eighteenth-century armies, the Prussian army contained ministers of Catholic, Calvinist, and Orthodox faiths, in addition to the official state sanctioned Lutheranism. [21] The Lt. Colonel of the Brunswick Prinz Friedrich Regiment, Christian Julius Prätorius, allowed his Catholic soldiers to attend mass separately from the rest of his men.[22]

Many men of an earlier generation, such as Leopold von Anhalt Dessau, were rough Christian soldiers of a simple, childlike faith. Though Leopold was an effeciency-minded reformer, he nonetheless possessed a firm, gruff sense of religion. His order to attack at the Battle of Kesselsdorf was a simple, "In Jesus Nahmen marsch!" (In Jesus name, forwards!).[23] He and men like him were consistently in conflict with the more intellectual officers of the Prussian army, and both added a necessary ingredient in Prussian success.


Richard Knötel's depiction of  Leopold von Anhalt Dessau at Kesselsdorf
So, for most eighteenth-century Protestant German soldiers, religion was a moderating force, which provided cohesion, stability, and occasionally empathy. An observer noted of a Prussian regiment at prayer:
"you could imagine nothing more elevating than to see this band of heoes, who make provinces and kingdoms tremble, bow down before the Almighty. The generals, the officers, and the rank and file stand in a circle around the preacher, who makes his altar out of two drums, and they all pray to Lord with bowed heads."[24]
Frederick II was a deist, not an atheist 

Non-belief in Eighteenth-Century Armies

As better and more famous historians than I have noted, measuring non-belief before the twentieth century is indeed a difficult proposition.[25] What we can say with certainty is that members of the upper classes expressed Deistic ideas. Frederick II, himself a deist, was not afraid to resort to theistic language in order to inspire his troops. At one point, he and General Seydlitz were listening to one of these religious speeches, and Frederick commented on the religious language: "That's just for the baggage drivers!"[26]

In the Austrian service, despite the incredibly high level of religious devotion among the rank and file, many officers were less devout.  Describing a particular brand of young Austrian officer, a commentator noted that, "few of them have religious beliefs, and they scorn those who harbour them..."[27] Still- despite the efforts on modern atheists (such as Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson) to read back atheist into the eighteenth century, real atheism was quite rare, if not unheard of. Frederick II strongly defended the deist position against atheism in the later years of his reign.[28]

In summary: despite being "the age of reason," in a military context, the European eighteenth century was a highly religious place. Although the highest echelons of society may have espoused deism, most ordinary soldiers remained extremely devout. Although Christian religious belief in Europe was quite diverse, most states still divided their official military-religious ceremonies along sectarian lines. A few North German states such as Prussian and Brunswick were making small strides in the areas of military-religious freedom.

Please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.


Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns




[1]Gustavas Adlerfeld, The Military History of Charles XII, Vol 2, 138.
[2]August Quennerstedt, Karolinska Krigares Dagböcker Jämte Andra Samtida Skrifter., Vol 3, 232.
[3] Christopher Duffy, Russia's Military Way to the West, 135.
[4]C. J. Ligne, Oeurves Choisies (Paris, 1890), 73.
[5]Charles-Emmanuel De Warnery, Campagnes De Frédéric II, Roi De Prusse: De 1756 à 1762 (1788), 312.
[6] Thomas Jackson eds, The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers, Vol 4, 137.
[7] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol 2, 37.
[8] Richard Holmes, Redcoat, 117. 
[9] Dölha, A Hessian Diary, 71-2
[10] Ibid, 15. 
[11] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War, 18. 
[12] Ibid, 19. 
[13]P. Benson de Lany, "Biographical Sketch of Robt. Kirkwood," Graham's Magazine, vol 28, pg 104.
[14] Royster, A Revolutionary People, 250-4. 
[15] Michel Delon eds, Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, 1247. 
[16] Christopher Duffy, Instrument of War, 344. 
[17] Duffy, Army of Maria Theresa, 133. 
[18] Reglement für die sämmentlich-kaiserlich-königliche Infanterie, (1769), 60. (Duffy's Translation.) 
[19] Alexander Burns, Honor, Religion, and Reputation, MA Thesis, Ball State University, 25. 
[20]Landesbibliothek Kassel, 4̊ Ms. hass. 186, Tagebuch des Obrist Lieutenants von Dinklage 1776-84. fol 202.
[21] Duffy, The Army of Frederick the Great, 208.
[22]Lt. Colonel Christian Prätorius to Karl I of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, NdsStA Wf, 38 B (Alt 237), Acta Militaria.
[23] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 245. 
[24] Ibid, quoted on page 207. 
[25] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith, 20. 
[26] Kalckreuth, 'Kalckreuth zu seinem Leben und zu seiner Zeit' , Minerva, Vol IV, 144. 
[27] Duffy, Instrument of War, quoted on page 187. 
[28] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 207. 

No comments:

Post a Comment