First Navy Chaplain(s)
“In July 1778, John Paul Jones tried to recruit two chaplains in France. He sought a Protestant for the crew of the Ranger and a Catholic for the French crew aboard the Bon Homme Richard. It is generally agreed that Benjamin Balch was the first chaplain in the Continental Navy.”1
“However, there is some discrepancy on [whether Benjamin Balch was the first Navy chaplain]. Shanner, in his article ‘Baptist Chaplains in American Naval History,’ cites Balch as the third man to serve as chaplain. He gives John Reed (1776) and Edward Brook (1777) as serving prior to the recognized date of Balch (1778).”2
“In 1775 Benjamin became Lieutenant in a Company of men raised in Danvers, Massachusetts. Under the command of Captain Edmund Putnam the troops of this company would march on Lexington where they would participate in the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775. After this, Benjamin would serve as chaplain in the regiment of Colonel Ephrim Doolittle followed by some time on the Frigate Boston and other ships.
“In 1781 Benjamin was serving as chaplain, under the command of Captain John Barry, on board the Frigate Alliance. On a voyage to transport an American ambassador to France the ship came under heavy attack from two British ships. The intensity of the fighting caused Benjamin to grab a musket and fight so fiercely that he earned the nickname “The Fighting Parson”. Benjamin’s son, Thomas, was also on board the Alliance during the fighting.”3
“In 1798, the Department of the Navy is established. Shortly after this, in 1799, William Balch, son of Continental Navy Chaplain Benjamin Balch, became the first commissioned United States Navy chaplain. He served until the naval drawdown in 1801 after the relations with France are normalized.”4
“William studied [theology] at Harvard… Starting on October 30, 1799 he would serve briefly in the American Navy, [spending] most of his time on board the USS Chesapeake. The Chesapeake served in a conflict with the French that became referred to as the “Quasi War”. After this conflict was settled, and relations were formalized with the French, the American navy was greatly reduced and William’s service ended on May 10, 1801.”5
Interestingly, Benjamin Balch’s father (William Balch’s grandfather), Thomas Balch (1711-1774), served for a time as a chaplain with the British Army. “In 1744, when the War of Austrian Succession broke out in Europe, the Committee of War chose Thomas to be a Chaplain to the forces that led an assault at the Siege of Louisbourg. This siege was carried out, by the British, against French forces in modern Canada. Below is an account, written by Thomas, that appeared in the records of the South Parish of Dedham.
“Having an Inclination and being desired by the Committee of War to attend the Army as one of the Chaplains in the Expedition against Cape Breton, I accordingly obtained consent of my People on March 11, 1744-5 and on the 13, took my leave of my family and People. Arrived in Safety & Health at Canso on the 2d of April. Sailed from Canso to Cape Breton on April 29, entered the Chappeaurouge Bay the next morning, and soon after went on Shoar. The seige of Louisbourg continued until June 17. On which Day we entered and took possession of that Strong & important place, upon Terms of Capitulation. Sailed from Louisbourg for New England, July 11, arrived in Safety at Boston on the 27 of 3d month, 1745 Laus Deo.”6
The Balch’s: Thomas, Benjamin, and William. Three generations who answered the call of their country to serve the religious needs of its soldiers and sailors.
1Dickens, William E., Jr., Answering the Call: The Story of the U.S. Military Chaplaincy from the Revolution through the Civil War, 1999, pg. 20.
2Ibid., pg. 26
3Balchipedia, The Encyclopedia of Balch History, “Benjamin Balch – First Continental Navy Chaplain,” http://balchipedia.wikidot.com/benchap. Accessed 28 November 2018.
4Dickens, pg. 29.
5Balchipedia, “William Balch – Chaplain After the Revolution,” balchipedia.wikidot.com/willchap. Accessed 28 November 2018.
6Ibid., “Rev. Thomas Balch – Minister,” http://balchipedia.wikidot.com/revthomasbalch. Accessed 28 November 2018.
Photo of Benjamin Balch’s grave from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/26180099/benjamin-balch. Accessed 29 November 2018.
Photo of William Balch: Artwork by Clayton Braun, circa 1940s, Chief of Chaplains, USN. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 92786.
Photo of Thomas Balch’s grave at Old Parish Cemetery in Norwood, Massachusetts from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/186563082/thomas-balch. Accessed 29 November 2018.