Tuesday, October 3, 2017

"They Have No More Religion Than My Horses[?]": Faith and the British Army After 1748

HM 17th Regiment of Foot leaving for church parade. (Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum)

Dear Reader,

Having survived my comprehensive exams, I will attempt to keep Kabinettkriege up and running, although likely at a slower pace than this summer. We recently had a fantastic guest piece, written by Jack Weaver. If you are interested in writing something relating to warfare between 1648-1789, and would like to see it featured on Kabinettskriege, please contact me via the "About the Author" page.

Today, we are going to dig a little deeper into a subject of some controversy. That is: how religious were common soldiers in the British Army during the Seven Years' War and the American War of Independence?  This can be viewed as a follow-up to our earlier discussion of religion in eighteenth-century armies this summer. For some time, scholars (not without reason) appear to have taken the statement of an anonymous MP in 1779 at face value: "What signifies the religion of soldiers? They have no more religion than my horses."[1]

At first glance, it appears that the British soldier may have been less religious in 1754-1783 than they were at mid-century. Part of this, however, is the source material available to historians. Two common soldiers who left vivid records from the War of Austrian Succession era (1740-1748) Sampson Staniforth and John Haime, would later become Methodist ministers. In this same era, British soldiers abroad corresponded with John Wesley, the famous Methodist minister. The number of soldiers who had deeply-held religious convictions was likely small. However, as Michael Snape has suggested in his book, Religion and the Redcoat, it was "small but significant."[2]

John Wesley
Although fewer diarists in the Seven Years' War era show the strong influence of religious sentiments, we should carefully note that this  community of deeply religious British soldiers endured into that era. Methodist minister Samuel Walker created a strong Methodist society within the 58th Regiment of Foot at Truro during the Seven Years' War era. According to the nineteenth-century editor of Walker's papers:
"A great alteration, how ever, took place; punishments soon diminished and order prevailed in the regiment, to a degree never before witnessed, and the commander at length dis covered the excellent cause of this salutary change. Genuine zeal had now its full triumph and its rich reward—the officers waited on Mr. Walker in a body, to acknowledge the good effects of his wise and sedulous exertions, and to thank him for the reformation he had produced in their ranks."[3]
One of the soldiers wrote a letter to Reverend Walker after the 58th Regiment left Truro, confirming this:
"I judge no man: many would desire to die the death of the righteous, that would not desire to live their life; and [I] know that has been my case. Serjeant Moore for ever blesses the day that ever he saw Truro, and we both hope in the Almighty God to see it again, and to hear the glad tidings of salvation as formerly."[4]
British Soldiers in North America during the Seven Years' War
During the Seven Years' War, particularly in Ireland, Methodism continued to spread in the British Army. During a trip to Canterbury in February of 1756, John Wesley noted, "an abundance of soldiers and many officers," came to hear him preach. The next day, he had a meal with a colonel, who said, "No men fight like those who fear God: I had rather command five hundred such , than any regiment in his Majesty's army."[5] Likewise, nearly a year later, in 1757, Wesley noted:
"I went with T. Walsh to Canterbury, where I preached in the evening with great enlargement of spirit; but with greater in the morning, being much refreshed at the sight of so large a number of soldiers. And is not God able to kindle the same fire in the fleet which he has already begun to kindle in the army?"[6]
Indeed, Methodism continued to be such a potent force in the British Army that in 1759, Sir Robert Nugent urged William Pitt to use John Wesley (and George Whitefield) as a recruiting tool for the British Army, since Methodism continued to have influence in the army. [7]
Image result for Captain Thomas Webb
Captain Thomas Webb, Veteran of Louisbourg and Methodist Preacher

Captain Thomas Webb, of the 48th Regiment of Foot, who lost an eye to musket-fire at Louisbourg or the Plains of Abrahman (sources differ), was converted to Methodist in the 1760s.[8] He was famous for preaching in his uniform, and would often lay his sword on the lecturn, as pictured above. Webb is best remembered for establishing Methodists societies in North America, but he maintained a close relationship with John Wesley until Wesley's death in 1791.

During the American War of Independence, soldiers' memoirs not necessarily less religious, on average, than their counterparts from the 1740s to 1760s. John Wesley, taking a contrary view, recorded in October of 1779 that, "The English Soldiers of this age have nothing to do with God!"[9] This assertion seems rather ungrateful, as Wesley had been protected a number of times from mobs in Ireland by the presence of British soldiers.  But what of writing from soldiers themselves? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a heavier concentration of religious language is present in the speeches of men about to be executed, such as Valentine Duckett and Robert Young. Readers can find excerpts of both of these soldiers' testimony in Don Hagist's excellent book, British Soldiers, American War.

How likely is it that these soldiers are discussing the varieties of religious experience?
(Photo Credit: Dr. Will Tatum) 
But what about soldiers who survived military service? Thomas Watson of the 23rd Regiment of Foot is an obvious outlier, and the religious nature of his memoir sets him apart from many of his comrades.  By clear contrast, Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment fails to mention religion in almost any aspect, except noting the number of churches in towns he marched past. John Randon, a soldier mortally wounded at Bunker Hill in 1775, wrote his wife a letter, describing his religious experience in the army:
"The Almighty Parent of mankind was pleased to draw my heart to him, by the sweet attraction of his grace; and at the same time to enlighten my mind. There was in our regiment a corporal, whose name was Pierce, a pious man; I inquired after him, and we soon contracted a strong friendship. He was pleased to explain to me the amazing love of God, in giving his son Jesus Christ to bleed and die for mankind. He condescended to unfold to me the mystery of salvation by faith, the nature of new birth, and the great necessity of holiness of heart and life. In short, he became my spiritual father..."[10]
Although the provenance of Randon's letter is somewhat questionable, it is still worth sharing. The memoir in which it is recorded was written by Sgt. Roger Lamb. Lamb's memoir is oddly interspersed with religious language. He utilizes religious language in calls for the emancipation of African slaves, and ends a chapter of his book with the admission that some people charge him with too much enthusiasm for Christianity.[11] More than a heartfelt religious observance, Lamb appears to utilize Christianity when it is literately useful for his cause. Shortly after leaving the army, William Burke of the 45th Regiment converted from Roman Catholicism to some form of Evangelical belief.[12]

The diaries of many converted soldiers
contain warnings against this type of behavior.

Thomas Cranfield, who enlisted in 39th Regiment in August of 1777, likewise records a story of religious conversion. Just before being deployed to Gibraltar, Cranfield entered a church on Sunday morning, being, "prompted by curiosity... The word, under the guidance of the Holy Spiritm was brought powerfully home to his mind, so that he became convinced of sin, and of the necessity of salvation through the Redeemer." This conversion experience prompted him to learn to read, and he recorded that he had soon met, "with very good friends, who give me good advice."[13]During the American War of Independence, there was little interest in the work of chaplains, but that "small but significant" minority of devout soldiers continued to minister to the spiritual needs of the British army.

In August of 1782, while preaching in Plymouth, John Wesley was surprised when: "A little before I concluded, the Commanding Officer came into the Square with his regiment; but he immediately stopped the drums, and drew up all his men in order on the high side of the Square. They were all still as night; nor did any of them stir, till I had pronounced the blessing."[14] This points to the idea that not only did Methodism survive in the ranks, but at times could be officially endorsed by officers. Officers had previously ordered soldiers to attend Wesley's sermons in April of 1778. In April of 1775, Wesley noted that his preaching resonated particularly with the officers of the Royal Highland Regiment.

In conclusion: preachers, politicians, officers, and common soldiers hotly contested the nature of religious life in the British army during the second half of the eighteenth century. Often derided as a place for young men full of immorality and wanderlust, the army retained significant religious elements. Though deep religious fervor was not the norm, those seeking religious comfort could find it, in the Seven Years' War era work of Methodist missionaries, and in the American War of Independence era through other soldiers who had been impacted by Methodism. Despite the drunkenness, violence, and immorality prevalent in the army, a "small but significant" religious community was alive and well throughout the British Army in the second half of the eighteenth-century.

I would like to end by including two Methodist hymns of the era. Though the tunes have been re-worked, the words the same as they would have appeared in the eighteenth century. The first is the "The Good Old Way", which was contemporary with Wesley, and mentions soldiers and marching.

The second hymn, often called Idumea, and popularized by the film, "Cold Mountain," was present in the eighteenth century, under the title, "And am I born to Die?" John Wesley mentions being particularly moved by this song in his journal on September 18th, 1770.

Again, both of these tunes are more modern arrangements. The Watersons' version of "The Good Old Way" most likely dates from the 1820s, while Cold Mountain's arrangement of Idumea dates from the 1840s.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Jonas Hanway, The Seamen's Christian Friend, iii.
[2] Michael Snape, Religion and the Redcoat, 67.
[3] Edward Sidney, The Life, Ministry, and Selections from the Remains of the Rev. Samuel Walker, 153
[4] Ibid, 157.
[5] Journal of John Wesley, 24-25th of February, 1756. Online Version
[6] Ibid.
[7] Snape, Religion and the Redcoat, 63.
[8] Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 1849, 386-88.
[9] Journal of John Wesley, 7th of October, 1779.
[10] Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 29-30.
[11] Ibid, 415.
[12] Don Hagist, British Soldiers, American War, 263.
[13] Thomas Cranfield,The Useful Christian, 12.
[14] Journal of John Wesley, 21st of August, 1782.

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